The Stanford Prison Experiment will make you question an individual’s choices when given a uniform, power, and authority. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez forces you inside the “prison” where the boundaries are not just pushed but shoved. The mental and physical torment that occurs throughout the film can certainly be draining, but through all of the disgust, there is a fascination in what is unfolding before your eyes. College kids are stripped of their identities and dehumanized, and it’s shocking to witness the transformation of their behavior and what becomes acceptable. You may have read and are familiar about this infamous experiment that was supposed to last two weeks, but instead ended after just six days. There’s a reason for that. After seeing this for yourself, you’ll understand why.
On August 14, 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) turns a Stanford University hallway in to a prison for a study on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard and the conflict between the two sides. Out of 75 students, 24 were selected and with a flip of a coin are chosen to either be a guard or prisoner for $15 a day. The guards get a uniform, sunglasses, and a baton while the prisoners are stripped of their clothes and names and given a dress with a number on it.
Let the mind games begin.
Quickly the realization sets in that this experiment is much more than that and being taken to the extreme. Zimbardo and his team sit back and watch the humiliation being endured while the madness slowly takes its toll. Even the doctor himself doesn’t realize that he has become part of his own research about the scary, unnerving side of human nature. Crudup’s portrayal as Zimbardo is packed with intimidation. He is in over his head, but never wants to admit it. What he is willing to let happen inside his “prison” for the sake of his work is what makes him so damn formidable. Not until the damage is already done does he realize what he’s become.
Ezra Miller (Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays Daniel but is mainly referred to as 8612, and he’s the rebel of the group. As things begin to intensify, he wants to fight back, but the rest of the inmates can’t see the danger of the guards’ power. Not yet anyway. On the other side, there is Chris (Michael Angarano), the overlord who first plants the fear before the other guards run rampant with it. Miller and Angarano give relentless performances, and for two very different reasons, make you feel their wrath. Those are the standout performances, but Alvarez gathered up a stunning young cast with each of them being electric in every scene. It’s mind-blowing the vulnerability that is shown by this cast, but perhaps expected given the harsh environment where everything you took for granted is ripped away.
After 40 years, this controversial yet thought-provoking study remains relevant. It speaks to us in undoubtedly disturbing volumes about the exploration of having control over an individual and how far you’re willing to go to find their breaking point. Alvarez keeps the audience claustrophobic and on lock-down throughout, letting every uncomfortable moment crawl over you.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is an insightful, visceral viewing experience that makes you wonder what a person is truly capable of. Deep down, I don’t think we want to know.