As we, as a nation, grapple with issues of police violence and the abuse of power, the release of The Stanford Prison Experiment couldn’t be more timely.
Based on the 1971 groundbreaking study, the film focuses on the work of Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) who put out a summer want ad for male college students looking to make a few bucks. The film starts with the interviews, as the boys—with long hair, bell-bottom jeans, and a breezy sense of entitlement—are grilled by Zimbardo and his team. (Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez shoots with a slightly grainy filter, giving the film an industrial, 70s-style look). Zimbardo explains that he’s creating a mock prison. “Do you want to be a guard or a prisoner?” he asks. “Prisoner,” they all say. Why? Because everyone knows that guards are assholes, they reply.
Zimbardo selects the boys for the experiment and randomly divides them into prisoners and guards. Then he does something diabolically clever. He tells the boys picked as guards that they were specially selected for their intelligence and leadership qualities. Ever-so subtly, he has implanted the idea that they’re superior to their charges. Zimbardo knows the experiment is about the dual nature of power and helplessness, but he never expects the roles to develop so fast.
Almost right away, the guards—given crisp uniforms and cop-style sunglasses—begin to verbally and then physically abuse the prisoners. One guard named Christopher Archer (Michael Angararo) jokes that he’s going to pretend to be one of the sadistic wardens in Cool Hand Luke. He then adopts a Southern drawl and goes full method on his part. Archer perhaps notwithstanding, the film suggests that the guards don’t have any particular penchant for sadism—that if the roles were reversed, the prisoners would likely do the same.
At first, the “prisoners”—stripped of their identities and given only uniform numbers—think it’s funny, a lark. Eventually, they realize no help is coming, no teacher is going to save them, and the guards are not messing around. For the most part, they begin to submit to the guards’ orders. As is always the case in such environments, there are a few rebels. One is Daniel Culp (Ezra Miller), who yells and screams until he is slammed against a wall and thrown into solitary—a storage closet. (The “prison” is actually an empty floor of a Stanford building.)
Meanwhile, Zimbardo and his crew watch the whole thing via closed circuit TV. His team wants to shut the experiment down right away, for fear that one of the boys will get hurt. But, sensing he’s onto something groundbreaking, and egged on by a wizened ex-con named Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), who’s a consultant on the experiment, he keeps it going.
For a while, the film holds an incredible fascination. How can these boys who are playing the guards not see what they’re doing? How can their empathy for a fellow student, a peer, be lost so fast? (But of course, they no longer perceive them as peers). And why don’t the prisoners band together and revolt? But eventually, I felt the film was simply pummeling us with its message of sadism and submission. (One exception comes when they set up a “Visitor’s Day,”where the parents come to the prison. The boys don’t break down in tears, begging to be brought home, as you might expect, but stoically insist that everything is fine. Is it because they don’t want to appear weak? Or is it because their indoctrination has truly been completed?) Still, by the time the guards start employing Abu Ghraib style sexual humiliation tactics, I was pretty much checked out.
That being said, the acting is great across the board—Angararo is a particular standout, as is Ellis’s ex-con, who begins to question his own enthusiasm for the project. As for Crudup’s Zimbardo, he comes across as an irresponsible egomaniac here, more concerned with the results of the experiment than the student’s welfare. It’s not until his wife (Olivia Thirlby, in an underwritten part), who’s also a psychiatrist, expresses her deep concerns that he first considers shutting the project down.
The film ends on a clever coda, as the boys are being interviewed—and at times, interviewing each other—about the effects of the experiment. Culp asks Archer why he took it so far. “I was playing a part,” Archer says, with a shrug. “Yeah, but you didn’t have to make it such a fucking masterpiece,” Culp replies bitterly.
The film, while certainly good, is hardly a masterpiece. But it does point out a grim truth: Just because we’ve identified a dark human tendency, that doesn’t mean we have any clue what to do about it.