This is a dramatisation of a true social experiment that took place in 1971, at Stanford University. With searing performances by its cast, The Standford Prison Experiment thrills you for most of its runtime. It starts with one simple question: “Would you rather be a prisoner or a guard?”
That’s what 24 college guys get asked in a questionnaire. These students have agreed to take part in a 14-day mock prison experiment. Despite the above question, they are each randomly assigned a role. Dr Phillip Zimbaro (Billy Crudup) is the professor conducting the experiment. He wants to test the psychology of inmate-guards relations, and the effects prison has on your personality.
Just so you’re aware, this film goes for pure realism. It feels almost like a reenactment or a “polished” version of the real footage you can watch on YouTube. All the students get into character and comply with the rules Zimbardo has set, but something happens… The guards become sadistic and the entire experiment starts getting out of hand.
What was supposed to be a straightforward experiment, spirals out of control. The film reveals the dark side of human nature, as the guards exploit their power over the prisoners. As enjoyable as it is, it’s such an unembellished film, that it comes across as rather spiteful and single-minded. The movie is all about the torment from the conditions of the experiment. Don’t expect the film to go any deeper than that. It shows the viewer one disturbance after another. I appreciate the film’s approach and it does work, but it’s just an unusual creative choice.
The Stanford Prison Experiment evokes the chaos of its namesake. You feel like you’ve spent actual time locked up with these people. The film makes great use of its source material and I would recommend it to anyone who’s unfamiliar with the story. If there’s one thing you’ll learn from this film is that it’s scary what people can do when given free rein.
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Writer: Tim Talbott, Phillip Zimbardo
Stars: Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias
Distributor: IFC Films
Runtime: 122 min.