by Jacob Mouradian
Prison is hell. So are psychological studies.
Winning multiple awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s third feature The Stanford Prison Experiment is a dramatization of the social experiment of the same name and rises just above the level of emotional manipulation to make it tolerable.
During the summer of 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), hoping to study the psychological effects prisons have on their inmates, works with his graduate staff to clear out a hallway in Stanford University’s basement and construct a makeshift prison to house nine “prisoners”. After sorting through the applicants of the study (most of whom are students just looking to make some extra cash) and divvying them up between the roles of “prisoners” and “guards”, the experiment gets under way with realistic arrests, strip-search procedures, and daily roll calls. The hours and days drag on; the “guards” test the lengths of their authority through continuous acts of degradation, driving the “prisoners” to the point of breakdown; and all the while Dr. Zimbardo watches the situation unfold from the sidelines-eager to witness the results yet leery about the experiment being compromised, through either external or internal forces.
The Stanford Prison Experiment echoes recent docudramas such as the disgusting 2012 film Compliance in its straightforward, desaturated, and somewhat bland presentation of real-life authoritarian trauma. While this may be a competent strategy for a relatively new filmmaker on a low budget, it doesn’t offer much more insight than watching an hour-long History Channel special or reading about the topic on Wikipedia would. It’s in the moments where the film fully embraces such an aesthetic that it becomes uncomfortable to watch, starting to feel more like pure exploitation of the events for no other reason than shock value.
Maybe with films like this there are no other ways to show the events than “straightforward”; perhaps it’s the simplistic presentation aiming to be truthful that comes across as so jarring in these films, as we as viewers fight to convince ourselves that such adherence to authority could never happen-or certainly not to us. But alas, that’s just psychological speculation.
However, unlike other docudramas of this ilk, SPE does have the self-aware decency to make a moral judgment and call out the whole situation, mainly through its rather villainous portrayal of Zimbardo. Crudup plays the psychologist with such an unwavering stoicism that it becomes increasingly creepy as the film rolls on. As the “experiment” unfolds, his dedication morphs into obsession and he becomes determined to finish his work at whatever cost. He becomes ill-tempered, arguing with fellow academics over his flawed scientific process (with one in particular questioning whether it’s even an “experiment” at all, or if it’s just a simulation). He gives into delusional thinking as well, watching the “guards” march the “prisoners” down the hall to the bathroom with bags over their heads, muttering to his fiancè: “Isn’t it great?” Although it probably mirrors his real-life metamorphosis, it’s disappointing to see Zimbardo get granted redemption so easily as it jars with his character that spent nearly two hours getting established.
In addition to Crudup the film is also boosted by a fantastic supporting cast of young up-and-comers, with Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano particularly standing out. Miller is college student Daniel Culp, or “Prisoner 8612”, a standard twentysomething who plays it cool until he is physically and emotionally torn down by the “guards” to the point of a psychotic breakdown. Miller’s transformation throughout the film is depressing to watch, like seeing a wild animal get thrown into a cage and then squirming with fear as its walls get pushed closer together. Angarano is infuriatingly terrifying as student Christopher Archer, encompassing what the “prisoners” refer to as the “John Wayne” role and-while never physically assaulting any of them-degrading them through persuasion to go through embarrassing exercises with a determined sense of superiority. It also helps that the cast has a decent script from writer Tim Talbott to work from, providing clever dialogue and great pacing from scene to scene.
SPE is another in a line of recent releases that makes us observe the effects of authority and, while maybe not making us question it on the whole, definitely makes us understand this particular situation a bit more clearly. With worthy performances and a contender for Villain of the Year, this is if anything a watchable indie diversion. Hopefully, unlike the subjects, you won’t need to visit a shrink afterwards.