Review: ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’
”What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?” -Professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo
The Stanford what?
The Stanford Prison Experiment is based on the events of a psych study, conducted at Stanford University in 1971. Professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his team drafted 24 male college students as volunteers, offering 15$/day, to live in a simulated prison for two weeks. Decided by a mere coin toss, the test subjects were divided into guards and prisoners. Almost immediately, they fell into a downwards spiral of power abuse that effected the guards, the prisoners and the researchers.
This notorious experiment has had several adaptations so far. Most notable being Das Experiment, a controversial German film based on a thriller novel, inspired by the experiment. To everyone who just drooled at the word “controversial”, a word of caution, Das Experiment is not for the faint of heart. That being said, The Stanford Prison Experiment was filmed in close cooperation with Dr. Zimbardo himself. So we can assume it’s a close depiction of what actually transpired during the experiment.
Unlike its German counterpart, this movie doesn’t resort to physical violence and cruelty. Instead, there’s plenty of verbal abuse and emotional torture -even better-. Which makes it more relatable than a “mad scientist gone wrong” film. Smart use of character interaction and dialogue shows us how everyone involved, slowly but surely, changes their behavior towards the experiment. It reaches a point where it’s just agonizing to watch. Not because it is overly cruel, but because you think to yourself: “surely I wouldn’t behave the way they do”. And that’s the whole point, you don’t know if you would. Neither did the test subjects in 1971, and yet it happened. In fact, this movie is easy to hate because of that. If you don’t think their behavior is plausible, it clashes with the realistic setting, and you’ll probably stop watching.
Director Kyle Patric Alvarez handles the film with subtlety and finesse; taking his time to convey the evolution in the characters’ frustrations, as they learn more about themselves. A young and talented cast gives a believable performance, without overacting. The second half’s slow pacing feels a bit like a drag, compared to the first hour. But the story never completely loses its punch.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is an upsetting and claustrophobic experience, far less crude than its predecessors. Masterfully directed, stuffed with talent and thought provoking. It is bound to stir up some mixed feelings. Mostly overlooked in 2015, it’s an ideal watch for anyone looking to lie awake at night. Or just to spark another discussion with your mates at the pub, while being drunk off of your asses. That works too.
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Stars: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann
Duration: 122 minutes
When to watch? -when you’ve run out of things to talk about