The famous/infamous Stanford Prison Experiment is getting the film treatment once more. Studying the psychological nature of the human brain under faux prison conditions, the experiment is one of those staples of high school and college education that any movie version really needs to dig deep to be more than a textbook rundown. If not, we might as well get a Pavlov’s dogs picture.
The Standford Prison Experiment is certainly set-up for success. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G.) has managed to assemble many of the best young American actors for his rendition of Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s work. Amongst that ensemble is Ezra Miller (Perks of Being a Wallflower), Tye Sheridan (Mud), Keir Gilchrist (It’s Kind of a Funny Story), Johnny Simmons (also of Perks) and Ki Hong Lee (“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”). This batch is gathered together and offered two weeks of pay by Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), who randomly splits up the dozen-or-so into prisoners and guards, with each being told to play their role and see what happens. The guards give commands, keep things orderly and the like, while the prisoners do what they’re told or slightly rebel against. It goes quite badly. Alvarez’s film does little to show any new insight into why.
Alvarez shoots it all as clinically as possible, which could work in theory. The tightness of the fake prison that’s built within a college campus is appropriately confined. The narrow spaces and cramped rooms give a sense of the conditions physically. Emotionally, it’s all surface level. The guards let it all go to their heads, barking ridiculous threats, commandeering this and that and acting the part in a harsh manner. What Tim Talbott’s script never does and Alvarez refrains from lingering on are the downbeats. What do the young men who opt for cruelty and ruthless authority while on the clock think on their downtime? What do the imprisoned ponder when not lined up or doing push-ups? These questions only get any real breathing room in the final minutes of the movie after the experiment is done, with Alvarez showing faux-interview footage.
The shock of the intrinsic horrors of humanity wear-off within thirty-minutes and what’s left grows tedious. Cuts to Crudup’s doctor watching the clips, debating with his fellow researchers about whether or not to step-in feels perfunctory at best, often tilting into hand-holding the themes. Worse yet is an arbitrary element of romance between Crudup and his girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) where these elements are doubled-down, with no other use for their existence being apparent. What we’re left with is a mostly well-acted dramatization that leaves out the meat of the matter; undercooked and over-salted.
The Stanford Prison Experiment opens in Seattle tomorrow and is currently available via VOD.