The compelling psychological drama “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (expanding to more cities nationwide July 31) is a disturbing exercise in just how quickly one-sided authority can completely warp a human being.
In short: Based on the true story of a Stanford psychology professor (Billy Crudup) who begins a prison simulation — randomly assigning 24 student volunteers as either guards and prisoners. (watch the trailer)
The brilliance of “Prison Experiment” is its pure simplicity: cast 24 otherwise unassuming people as either prisoners or guards — and it quickly unravels into a battle of wills between fascist guards and oppressed inmates. The experiment is scheduled to last 14 days – but it alarmingly spirals out of control in just the first day of the study.
This gripping drama follows everyday people descending into the worst versions of themselves or being pushed to their emotional extremes. The guards gleefully exploit their position, while the prisoners find themselves compromising their values, just to survive in the mock prison. The truly terrifying aspect is how the guards torment and abuse the inmates … relying mainly on psychological torture. The fact that the guards resist hitting the inmates actually makes their mind games more sinister.
This story is allegory that is timelessly relevant – and given the recent focus on police brutality, this story seems all too timely. While the obvious parallels can be made between police officers or even how normal Germans could become monstrous concentration camp soldiers, the core of “Prison Experiment” is the relative ease in turning a normal person into a monster or a subservient prisoner.
This is a brilliant ensemble cast performance – from Crudup, to his draconian guards and the dehumanized prisoners. Every character gets pulled into the downward spiral of this experiment — and the performances absolutely sell the idea of normal kids and professors willingly becoming monsters and survivors.
What keeps “Prison Experiment” from being a 5-star film is its too “on the button” final conclusion. This film’s first and second acts went to great length to simply show the guards degrade the prisoners. But the final postmortem of the study — from the professor and subjects — very directly and simplistically spells out the themes of the film. Characters painfully explain the lessons/takeaways from the experiment — this type of storytelling is, at the very least, massively disappointing.
Final verdict: This is a superb drama that explores the darkest aspects of humanity — and the thriller aspects of “Prison Experiment” relentlessly ratchet up the tension. An incredible first act and a superb ensemble cast make this dramatic true story a notable film of 2015.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is playing in select cities and expands to additional cities on July 31. This drama is rated R for language including abusive behavior and some sexual references.