Overview: A group of twenty-something males are paid to participate in an experiment in which half will serve as guards and the other half prisoners. IFC Films; 2015; Rated R; 121 minutes.
Cops: The real-life Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 is an often cited psychological study and rarely is the citation offered in flattering illustration of humanity and civilization. But the general application of the study’s “results” typically excludes a necessary caveat; that is, young twenty-somethings at Stanford, whose concepts of prison proceedings were most likely informed by the decade’s contentious relationship between authority structures and a rebellious generation and media sources wherein storytelling principle dictates that conflict be heavy and exaggerated, were given instructions to serve in the role of prisoners and inmates. Rarely is it discussed the likelihood that these subjects were almost determinedly going to emulate the only sources of understanding that they had available. It’s hard accept the implied cynicism of the study with these terms. Is it really an illustration of a predisposition to authoritarian structures planted at the roots of our cultural psychology when, in the simplest understanding, the study could just as readily be explained as young men role-playing within the boundaries of their limited understanding of prison systems?
Somewhat surprisingly, young Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez fields this concern quickly and frequently in his film The Stanford Prison Experiment. The naiveté and disruptive cultural influence of the subjects is never stepped around or hidden. The boys discuss the flimsy masculinity of John Wayne. They display an over-readiness to hurl words like “fascist.” But even more than that, Alvarez’s choices in set design—a recognizably academic hallway serves as the prison, complete with seemingly flimsy doors and walls that are anything but prison-like, and establish a broader psychological problem. The young prisoners are evidently imprisoned only by their readiness to imaginatively accept imprisonment, and the cops impose tyrannically only because that’s the only way they can understand authority.
Robbers: The Standford Prison Experiment is held together by a collection of solid central performances from a great cast of up-and-coming, soon-to-be A-listers. Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, We Need to Talk About Kevin), Michael Angarano (Almost Famous), Keir Gilchrist (It Follows), and Tye Sheridan (Mud, Tree of Life) all seem to operate with under a consensus-based understanding of what Alvarez is attempting to accomplish with his complex narrative.
The Warden: Most often, Alvarez and his cinematographer Shelton turn the viewer’s screen into another intrusive, studious, and curious observation window. This allows the audience to sync perspectives with Dr. Philip Zambardo (Billy Crudup), the imaginary warden and the psychology professor who authored the study. Late in the film, someone asks Zambardo, “What’s the independent variable?” A long, hopeless pause suggests that not only does Zambardo not have an answer ready, he has no control over his experiment. Further, as the experiment spirals out of control, it’s evident that Zambardo has no control over his fellow experimenters, his own ideas, or his personal life, either. Crudup plays Zambardo with just the right rhythm of hopelessness.
Overall: The Stanford Prison Experiment is a chilling movie that moves the boundaries on the way we think of the implications of the real-life event.