Anyone who has taken a psychology 101 introductory course knows the name Philip Zimbardo. He was the psychology professor that conducted one of the most infamous experiments about imprisonment at Stanford University in 1971. He recruited and paid 24 students to participate in a study to see how situation shapes behavior. With the flip of a coin, the university students were either assigned as guards or prisoners. The experiment was to last two weeks but Zimbardo had to terminate it after only six days. After all these years, ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ is still shocking to see as young, educated men deteriorate so quickly into cruel guards and emotionally shattered prisoners. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, written by Tim Talbott and cinematography by Jas Shelton, the story moves forward like a documentary with a moody claustrophobic tone.
The experiment is a fascinating study on the nature of good and evil. Are some people inherently evil or is it based on the situation? According to Zimbardo, “the message of my little prison experiment is that situations can have a more powerful influence over our behavior than most people appreciate and few people recognize.” Many believe that most people hold that evil is located only in the disposition of the individual (like in their genes or brains) and that there are good apples and there are bad apples.” Zimbardo is not denying there are a few bad apples but the vast majority of evil in the world is not committed by those few bad apples; instead, it is ordinary people doing extraordinary things under certain circumstances. That’s the fascinating aspect of his experiment. All these college students were essentially good apples because they were given a battery of personality and background tests. “Yet within days, the guards were transformed into sadistic thugs and the prisoners were emotionally broken,” remarks Zimbardo. Thus, a bad barrel (situation) turned good apples (students) rotten.
The talented young cast is terrific. Many of these actors will emerge as big stars one day. One of the standout performances comes from a volunteer played by Michael Angarano (Haywire) who steps up as the leader of the guards. He takes on a southern accent and persona straight out of the film ‘Cool Hand Luke.’ At first, the prisoners are joking and glad they landed the $15 a day paid summer job. Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, We Need to Talk About Kevin) is one of the prisoners that give a riveting performance. At first he is confident but when he notices the guards beginning to mistreat him, he begins to act rebellious. He is one of the first prisoners to break under the pressure. Other prisoners submit to whatever the guards order them to do no matter how degrading. The transformation is complete when they are lined up in the narrow hallway of the simulated prison and call out their prison numbers and lose their identities. When Daniel 8612 refuses to comply, the guards throw him into a makeshift solitary confinement (the hole) as a punishment.
As Zimbardo and his graduate students watch the proceedings from an office with grainy closed-circuit televisions, they are just as amazed as the audience how quickly the students assume their roles. Zimbardo knows that this experiment is going to make him world famous. It’s also the reason why he is hesitant to terminate the experiment when it begins to go out of control. Olivia Thirlby (5 to 7) plays Christina Maslach, Zimbardo’s girlfriend at the time (now his wife) to see how the experiment is going in the basement of Jordan Hall at Stanford. When she sees how badly the prisoners are being treated, she becomes the only voice of reason to Zimbardo to stop the experiment before one of the boys gets seriously injured. Crudup is amazing as Zimbardo as he nervously watches the proceedings become grimmer. This is another suspenseful and fascinating plot twist. Crudup’s Zimbardo almost takes on a Dr. Frankenstein persona as he steps in as prison warden and listens to a few prisoners plead their case to be set free and go home.
As an audience member, you feel the tension building as the cruelty escalates. Alvarez’s direction is meticulous as the prison simulation goes from bad to worse in a short period of time. Some of the other notable prisoners are played with intensity by Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life, Mud), Johnny Simmons (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner), Thomas Mann (Project X, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto). Some of the prisoners become meek while others fight back but are quickly punished. Since the experiment takes place in a basement hallway, the glaring artificial light and lack of a routine, begins to take its toll on the prisoners as they become anxious and paranoid.
‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ is a thought-provoking film. The 70s hairstyles and clothing make it a spot-on period production. This is a must-see story that perfectly illustrates the darker side of human behavior. It opens at The Flicks on 7/31. Check out the official IFC trailer https://youtu.be/7LviGTHud5w.