For most, myself included, the idea of going to prison is a terrifying notion. After watching The Stanford Prison Experiment–a fictionalized recreation of a real life 1970’s psychological experiment–I realize that my fears are totally justified, and now, I am also terrified to go to pretend prison as well.
In August 1971, a group of male students participated in a study on the psychological effects of being a prison inmate versus being a prison guard. For this, the basement of a Stanford University building was transformed into a makeshift prison, complete with bars, cells, and solitary confinement. The prisoners were “arrested,” stripped, dressed in long white gowns, and donned matching stocking caps. Their names were abandoned and were referred to only by their prison numbers. To properly get into character, the guards were also appropriately outfitted with uniforms, aviator sunglasses, and armed with nightsticks.
With a team of graduate student psychologists, led by Dr. Phillip Zambardo, watching closely, the young men assumed their pre-determined roles and the planned 2-week experiment began. From there, things quickly escalated. Needless to say, none of the participating groups (prisoners, guards, or researchers) were prepared for what happened over the course of the next several days, nor what each group found themselves doing during that time to one another and themselves. A mix of irresponsibility and over-zealousness gone awry. The results were surprising, to say the least. Ultimately, the experiment was abandoned after only 6 days because of what occurred.
The film takes an appropriately observational approach to watching the events unfold. Unfortuantely, this does not allow for much individual introspection, as it keys on only a few prisoners and even fewer guards. Focusing on the breakdown of social norms and the human psyche, it is unnerving and the film grows progressively harder to watch as the tension builds to insurmountable heights. The real life experiment–and therefore, the film it is based on–deals with a multitude of ethical conundrums, including morality, dehumanization, abuse of power, the illusion of authority, sadomasochism, etc.
To pull this off cinematically, the film relies on a truly remarkable cast of young Hollywood talent – kind of like a new generation of The Outsiders (1983). Though many of the young actors this time have more established careers than their early 80s counterparts did at that time. It will be interesting to look back on this film and cast in another 10 years or so and see how these promising young actors have progressed.
Playing the guards and prisoners are Michael Angarano (Almost Famous), Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Tye Sheridan (Mud, Tree of Life), Johnny Simmons (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer, Ender’s Game), Keir Gilchrist (It’s Kind of a Funny Story, It Follows), Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and others.
The graduate students and consultants are played by James Wolk (Mad Men), Nelsen Ellis (True Blood), and Olivia Thirlby (Juno), and are led by Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) as Dr. Zambardo.
The Stanford Prison Experiment opens Friday, July 31 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center in New Orleans. The film will screen at 9:30 p.m. nightly.