The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
  • Time: 120 min
  • Genre: Drama | Thriller
  • Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
  • Cast: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan


Twenty-four male students out of seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

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  • It began with an ad in the classifieds: Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. Volunteers would be paid $15 per day for an experiment intended to last 1 – 2 weeks.

    Applicants are screened for histories of psychological and sexual deviancies (“No, I’m a Stanford student” is one perfectly timed response) and those deemed to be exceptionally normal are divided equally into guards and prisoners. There is no specific criteria governing the assignations of roles, only a flip of a coin. If the 18 chosen few had their way, all of them would be prisoners given the prevailing counterculture of the period.

    The 1971 study is led by psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), who is assisted by three of his colleagues (James Wolk, Gaius Charles, Matt Bennett) as well as a former San Quentin convict (Nelsan Ellis). Conducted during the summer, Zimbardo recreated a prison environment in the unoccupied basement of the Stanford University psychology building. Those selected as guards are told they are not to hit or physically abuse any of the prisoners. All of them are to wear sunglasses to mimic a faceless and unified authority.

    Those designated as prisoners are rounded up from their various homes in a series of mock arrests. Handcuffed and blindfolded, they are taken to the narrow hallway of the basement for processing. They are stripped naked, disinfected, given beige smocks and stocking caps to wear, and assigned numbers which will become their identities. They are apprised of the rules they must obey: remain silent at almost all times, eat at specific mealtimes, and address every guard as “Mr. Correctional Officer.”

    It’s all playacting and nervous laughter at first. The processing of the prisoner that will be known as 8612 (Ezra Miller), for example, is almost like an improv class, with everyone feeling out their parts but still treating the scenario as a game. When 8612 joins his fellow inmates in one of the cells, they make like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson: “We been framed!” They wonder if they should go along with the program. Maybe it’ll be easier if they do as the guards order, one prisoner thinks, but 8612 scoffs. They can do anything they want, he says, because the guards can’t do anything about it. After all, he points out, that’s what it says in the contract.

    Yet as any actor will tell you, you can lose yourself in the character, and it isn’t too long before the guards start to take their roles a bit too seriously. One guard in particular (a terrifyingly excellent Michael Angarano) fashions himself after Strother Martin’s sadistic warden from Cool Hand Luke – is he merely getting into his role or abusing his authority? Zimbardo’s team voice their concerns about the guards going overboard and wonder if they should step in, but Zimbardo is too engrossed by what he sees on the surveillance monitors and is eager to see how the experiment plays out.

    The Stanford Prison Experiment screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, whose line-up also included Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter. The latter chronicled the controversial psychological experiment on obedience by Stanley Milgram in the early Sixties. The films make for intriguing companion pieces as both tackle ethically suspect observations on the frequently shocking capabilities of human behaviour, particularly the ability to inflict pain whether it be under the guise of following orders (as per Milgram’s study) or enacting the so-called requirements of their roles. Zimbaro wanted to note the effects an institution imposes on human behaviour and certainly got more than he bargained for. It is horrifying that anyone – be it Zimbardo, his staff, or any of the volunteers – should have let it degenerate to such a degree but whatever the traumas suffered in the name of research, it is hard to argue with the results.

    Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez renders a fastidious recreation of Zimbardo’s simulation. The audience is there every step of the day was the prisoners are systematically broken down. Alvarez may have recreated too faithfully as the versimilitude does eventually become grueling; the third act is especially bleak and oppressive. Watching The Stanford Prison Experiment is nothing if not an endurance test, but one that disturbs and provokes and makes one question what we would have allowed or how far we would have gone if we had been in that situation.

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