When it’s used correctly, psychological science is a plot element I always find deeply intriguing. It becomes even more so when the experiment surrounds human behavior, as is depicted in The Stanford Prison Experiment. Based on the true story from 1971, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the director of C.O.G. and the critically acclaimed Easier With Practice, shows a interesting aspect of the human condition when placed either in a position of power or obedience.
The film centers around a two week experiment at Stanford University led by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup in a great performance, unwavering with charisma. He and his assistants put an ad in local newspaper, beautifully shown in the opening credits, asking for male students looking to make $15 dollars a day. After an interviewing process, twenty four men are chosen for the experiment.
The basis of Zimbardo’s experiment is to break the group up into twelve guards and twelve inmates to see the effects of being given authority versus being incarcerated. One of the “guards” (Michael Angarano) opts to be called John Wayne and models his behavior off Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke. Quickly, he becomes the leader of the pack and pushes the limits of his position, causing out of character shifts for some of the “inmates” and even some moral breakdowns.
As the experiment progresses, it gets increasingly out of control as both sides clash constantly, the jailed side trying to revolt against the oppressing guards, who are running out of ways to either punish them or enforce their rules without enacting cruel behavior. Zimbardo watches all of this unfold in his control room, not expecting the experiment to go in the dark direction it does. The whole thing becomes less of what it was intended to be and more a demonstration of class hierarchy, causing a rift between colleagues and the administration.
Aside from the great psychological side of this film, the cast that fills the experiment is some of the best young talent that will soon move in to be out A-List actors of the next decade. Ezra Miller (We Need To Talk About Kevin), Tye Sheridan (Mud), Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and The Dying Girl) and Brett Davern (Awkward) all give very interesting character work as prisoners but Angarano definitely steals the film with his false alpha dog antagonizing that his character takes on, almost like an acting role.That next to Crudup’s command of every single scene he’s in make this film a total winner.
The only thing for me that detracted from my enjoyment of this film was some of the hair and make up that showed on the screen pretty falsely. I can be fairly confident in saying that actors Johnny Simmons and Jesse Carere did not grow the lovely mustaches they have in this movie as they look pretty unnatural. The same goes for Thomas Mann’s long blood hair that is a bit suspect. It’s a very small gripe of mine still worth mentioning.
The Stanford Prison Experiment definitely had my attention with it’s base premise of which had inspired the German film Das Experiment, a fantastic film that has already had an American remake. I was excited to see the true story behind such and interesting and controversial subject. This film lived up to the hype I had going into it and I give it a four out of five.