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As chillingly thought-provoking as it is absorbing and well-acted, The Stanford Prison Experiment offers historical drama that packs a timelessly relevant punch.
All Critics (94)
| Top Critics (31)
| Fresh (78)
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The acting is uniformly strong and the camera work is winningly claustrophobic, but the film is one note: scene after scene of bullying.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is the kind of movie that raises as many questions as it answers. It's also the kind of film where you want to budget some time for discussion afterward. You won't be able to shake this one off easily.
This is not an uplifting movie, and its progress can be grueling. But it has a lot to say about how we let roles define us, how fragile personalities are and how context shapes reality.
The film works hard to keep up the suspense: how far will the guards go? How much can the prisoners take? At what point, if any, will Zimbardo and his team intervene? And is his experiment scientific? Objective? Humane? Worthwhile?
Watching these young men brutalize each other is troubling enough, but perhaps the film's most interesting angle is how the experiment changes more than its subjects.
Billy Crudup gives a fine performance as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who engineered the whole thing and was then pulled into his own power trip.
The Stanford Prison Experiment isn't fun, but it is engrossing, and it provides fodder for thought (and perhaps even self-reflection) a long time after it ends.
The reenactment is ugly and affecting, attention shifting from member to member among the excellent ensemble cast; Tim Talbott's script is streaked with an awareness of privilege that a lesser movie would have neglected.
The uneven film ran out of gas way before it crossed the finishing line.
The scariest part is that viewers vicariously become Dr. Philip Zimbardo, hotly anticipating what happens next before coming to their senses realizing how inhumane this is, how far it has gone, and that it needs to stop
The most fascinating parts of the film depict the experimenters themselves, who are equally quick to abuse the power they have given themselves over the lives of others.
The Stanford Prison Experiment lives and dies by the quality of the performances, because there is very little else in the film.
Starting with the last movie I reviewed (American Violence), all of my reviews will now be simultaneously be posted on Letterboxd as well as on Flixster. I'm not writing a different review for each site, naturally speaking, I'm just gonna copy-paste it. In Letterboxd, much like Twitter, you have the ability to follow people and vice versa, so I may actually end up having followers who read my reviews. That's not my goal, though, I've always done this because it's fun for me and not necessarily because I want people to read my shitty reviews. But that's neither here nor there. Hello to my new Letterboxd 'friends' (I don't have any yet), it's business as usual for Flixster. Moving on to the review. Ever since I've heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment, it's been several years now, I've been fascinated by it and the results that the psychologists behind the study hoped to attain. It's a subject that, to me, has always made for an incredibly subject to explore in films. In fact I've seen two films inspired by this experiment. Those movies are: Das Experiment (a German flick) and The Experiment, which is a remake of the former. The former was very good and the latter was good as well, if only a slight notch below the original. I think the films that are inspired by this event have more freedom in that they can make the guards in the experiment even more detestable and then they can use the fact that the guards keep pushing the prisoners to a point where the only logical response is to violently push back against the oppressors. So it makes for a more satisfying narrative in that these people, who take their pretend authority way too seriously, get their comeuppance during the film's climax. I know this film wasn't gonna have any of that, since the experiment itself was terminated almost a week after it started (out of an original two-weeks assigned for it). Even with the fact that you don't get to see the guards get their comeuppance after their escalating psychological abuse and degradation of the prisoners, the film is still a fascinating exploration of power, abuse of authority and how, at a point when they're broken down emotionally, the prisoners just sort of accept their lot in life. It gets to the point where the prisoners actually start to talk about their parole as if it was a real thing and this wasn't just an experiment that they could, literally, quit at any time they wished necessary. One of the many things that I liked about this movie is that, unlike the others I mentioned, this film takes a measured look at the people in charge of the experiment and how Dr. Zimbardo, the man behind this experiment, was unable to maintain separation from this and how he, whether directly or indirectly, helped influence the actions of the guards under his 'command', as it were. Zimbardo is portrayed as a man who will let just about anything happens as long as he is able to see this experiment through. He encourages humiliation, degradation, depersonalization, stripping away the inmates' individuality, among many other things. He does not care about the fact that the inmates themselves might break under pressure, it's all meant to help get him his results. But the problem with the real life study, that wasn't explored in this movie, is that the sample size used for this experiment is too small for extrapolation and the fact that the experiment ended up using mostly white males from similar backgrounds. Results of the experiment would have been limited considering this fact, if the result had a more varied participants from different backgrounds and with different viewpoints, results might have been different and more relevant. I wish the film would have explored more of that, but it was not to be. But I think one of the things that you get from the film, and from the study itself, is that people with those sadistic tendencies ended up escalating their treatment of prisoner in their roles as guards. I suppose you could say that the guards, and the prisoners, acted precisely in the way that they were expected to. The dynamics of this all is one of the most interesting things to watch play out. When it comes to some real-life cases, I've always been of the opinion that documentaries end up being more interesting than their film counterparts. This is one of the few exceptions where a reenactment is far more dramatic and infuriating than a documentary would have been. Though I do believe a documentary might have been more in-depth. But seeing the guards act the way they do toward the prisoners makes you more invested in this story. I suppose you could say that the 'mob mentality' took over, but I would like to think that, if I was put into that same situation, I would not find it within myself to psychologically degrade and humiliate other human beings just for my own amusement or to exert my authority. All in all, I would have to say that I found this to be a really damn good movie. It is thought-provoking, captivating and relevant even to this day. Not to mention the fact that the acting is top-notch, you end up completely detesting most of the guards (since not all of them acted like major dickwads) and you empathize with the prisoners and the hell they were being put through for an experiment that, really, was flawed in its approach right from the start. I wouldn't say that it's perfect, no movie ever is, but I'd highly recommend this even if you're familiar with the experiment. It's pretty damn enthralling.
In grad school I interned at the Center for the History of American Psychology, which is an archive and museum in Akron, Ohio. I worked in close proximity to one of the doors from the makeshift prison cells as well as one guard uniform and one prisoner uniform. Based on my short time working there, when I became aware of the new Stanley Milgram film called Experimenter (streaming on Netflix), I had to watch it too. These two films would make an interesting double feature. The Stanford Prison Experiment is such an intriguing and terrifying real-life story. Billy Crudup plays the creepy professor Zimbardo who doesn't seem to know the limits of appropriate psychological tests. The selection process is portrayed as shoddy, accepting too much of the survey results at face value. Ezra Miller would be the star of this ensemble piece as the rebellious Daniel Culp or prisoner 8612. Authority, conformity, group think, and violence in the context of prison or the military are explored. But as some of the characters point out the experiment is constructed falsely and turns nightmare-ish. We see some of the drama recreated in the scientific candid observations of 16mm footage, but then we are not allowed to remain objective as the modern day video camera gets uncomfortably close to the misuse of power.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a frustrating watch. The guards negatively treat the detainees in ever increasing shocking and dehumanizing ways. Initially a few prisoners resist with acts of rebellion, but more often than not they start to concede to their situation. Their passive acceptance is no less disquieting. This conduct over the course of the drama is not an easy watch. What we see is personalties change. These are not prisoners/guards. These are privileged upper-middle-class college students attending Stanford. Guards grow sadistic while prisoners become submissive. They act out the roles expected of them in a way far beyond what anyone involved with the study could have expected. The undertaking is a bit exasperating. I had many questions and concerns about how the whole operation was handled and the validity of the results. However, as a document of a notorious experiment gone wrong (or right depending on what you wanted to prove) I found it to be an arresting study in human behavior. I can't say I enjoyed The Stanford Prison Experiment, but I did respect the craft that when into making it.
DON'T LET YOUR GUARD DOWN - My Review of THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT (4 Stars)
Having worked on a clinical study, I came to THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, a searing, powerful, difficult accounting of a 1971 trial that pushed the boundaries of research, with great anticipation. Certain studies, such as the famous Milgram Experiment of 1961 in which participants willingly agreed to inflict electric shocks on other participants (although no pain was administered), brought to light the ethics of causing physical and psychological harm. THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT fully immerses its audience into a study fraught with such questionable tactics.
Writer Tim Talbott (CHICAGO FIRE, THE LATHER EFFECT) and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G., EASIER WITH PRACTICE) forcefully yet nimbly tell the story of Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), a psychology professor at Stanford University who wanted to study the oppressive nature of incarceration on volunteers chosen to be either guards or prisoners. Setting up shop in a faculty office space on campus, the participants were paid $15/day for what was scheduled to be a 2 week experiment. Given very few instructions, the role playing began under the watchful eyes of Zimbardo and his staff. Thinking they were in for an easy paid vacation, things start off humorously until tensions begin to rise to the surface.
These early scenes are masterfully directed, with Alvarez and his very talented cinematographer, Jas Shelton, presenting one clinical, clean image after another to suggest a sense of emotional detachment. We, the audience, become observers as objective as the investigators, making the breaking point in the story that much more shocking and effective. When things erupt, it's volcanic and punishing. Some may feel exhausted by the claustrophobic and relentlessly brutal tone, but if you can handle the tension, you may experience, like I did, something richly rewarding.
The great cast is stuffed with talent and feels like "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" exploded all over it. First, let's start with Billy Crudup, who makes every decision his character makes, good and bad, simultaneously agonizing and thrilling to watch. His character could easily have slipped into the villain role had he not shown us his passion for the benefits of his work despite the obviously dodgy methods. Standing out next to him is his ALMOST FAMOUS co-star, Michael Angarano, who nearly steals the film as a guard nicknamed John Wayne. He takes his role a little too seriously as he instantly becomes drunk with power and give every scene he's in a little kick. Ezra Miller (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN), who keeps going from strength to strength, gives a searing performance as a very vocal inmate who quickly comes to understand the sadistic nature of the study. You feel this dawning realization step by step, right there with him as he fights back with every dignity-shattering suckerpunch. His PERKS co-star (See what I mean? Everyone knew each other somehow) Johnny Simmons, shows terrific vulnerability as another disillusioned inmate. I was also pleased to see James Frecheville, an up and coming Aussie actor who has been on my radar with great performances in ANIMAL KINGDOM and THE DROP, excel with his turn as a naive guard who doesn't quite know how to turn on the brute force. Throw in actors from ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, MUD, IT FOLLOWS, and JUNO and you just may find yourself in indie heaven.
This is not your typical fun night out at the movies. At the beginning of each day of the story, a title card appears, and the audience I saw the movie with would groan, not out of boredom, but because they were feeling every visceral, gut-wrenching moment. Escapist entertainment this is not. It reminded me of 70s renegade films like DOG DAY AFTERNOON with its grip on the audience and close adhesion to its characters. A little coda at the end perfectly uses recreated interviews with the subjects post-study, and their reflections give the film a much-needed exhale. Because, yes, there are times you may forget to breathe. Regardless, you may walk away wondering what you would have done in this situation. The film seems to say that there's such a thin line that keeps most of us from crossing over into very dark territory. Examining that side of yourself may be scary and unpleasant, but this tough, harsh, beautifully made film may just make that exploration worth it. Check your night sticks at the door.
THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT opens July 17th. It deservedly won both the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
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