Opening in theaters this Friday from IFC Films comes a disturbing project with “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”
In the early ’70s, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) begins a research study about the psychology of imprisonment. Interviewing those who want to participate, they are asked why they wanted to be a part of the study and, if given a choice, would they rather be a guard or prisoner. During the experiment Jessie (Nelsan Ellis) also joins the experiment.
Once the choices have been made they each settle into their roles. The prisoners are Gavin 4301 (Ki Hong Lee, Culp 8612 (Ezra Miller), Sherman 5486 (Logan Miller), Michell 819 (Tye Sheridan) and Jansen 1037 (Johnny Simmons) who are given uniforms and “cells” to live in.
The assigned guards are Vandy (Nicholas Braun) who becomes quite abusive towards the prisoners. So much so that the prisoners begin to react with fear, in some cases, and outrage. Within hours the roles begin to define themselves as the prisoners try to find a way to survive.
Research begins to turn into reality!
Crudup as Zimbardo begins with an honest experiment but allows unacceptable things to happen corrupting the experiment, at least as far as I was concerned. Crudup’s character knows what is right and wrong but allows it to the point of hiding it all of from colleagues and the university.
Miller as Culp is a straightforward prisoner who is trying to keep the rest together. Miller has been seen in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” He has a distinctive look that allows him to stand out without taking over in a film. The same is true here as the unspoken leader of the prisoners.
Braun as Vandy is a guard who takes absolutely power and corrupts it absolutely. It begins simply as being verbally abusive to the inmates and with one striking out it is equivalent to striking a match around dry brush. Ellis as Jessie believes the experiment has purpose until she is witness to Zimbardo allowing things to do go far.
TUBS OF POPCORN: I give “The Stanford Prison Experiment” three and a half tubs of popcorn out of five. It is interesting to listen to the interviews prior to ‘going in’. When asked the question why they wanted to be guards or prisoners, there answers set the stage for their behaviors.
Without knowing the story prior to watching the film, I couldn’t imagine these particular people being able to handle to weeks. The moment Vandy struck out I was prepared for what was to come next. The lack of immediate concern by Zimbardo really freaked me out but it also kept me watching! The cast plays this storyline out so very well. Playing off one another and the confined space brings intensity to the film that is a bit creepy.
The film is based on the life research of Dr. Zimbardo who was consulted on the making of the film. His goal with the experiment was to prove that both prisoners and guards have traits that cause abusive behavior. After the experiment ended there were actual riots at San Quentin and Attica.
In the end — they were given two weeks and lasted six days!