The Stanford Prison Experiment

It’s almost too fitting that “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” just like the 1971 scenario it recreates, starts out well, then gets progressively out of control before dissolving into chaos. The real events offered chilling insight into how people conform to the roles assigned to them; the movie comes across as implausible and hysterical, even though it depicts things that actually happened.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), a psychology professor at Stanford University, recruits male students to participate in a two-week study in a simulated prison in a disused campus hallway. Half of the subjects are randomly assigned to be guards, the other half prisoners, and they follow regular prison protocol. Prisoners are referred to by number, not name. Some participants take the role-playing more seriously than others. One guard (Michael Angarano) really gets into it, imitating Strother Martin from “Cool Hand Luke”; but a smart-alecky prisoner (Ezra Miller) treats the “authority” figures the way a rebellious kid treats a substitute teacher. Zimbardo and colleagues observe the proceedings through video feeds.

This is an ambitious project for talented director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, whose previous films, “Easier with Practice” and “C.O.G.,” also dealt with problematic subject matter but were much smaller in scale. Visually, Alvarez finds ways to keep things interesting despite the dull and claustrophobic setting, moving the camera up and down corridors, shooting many of the actors in close-up. The cast includes just about every up-and-coming male actor between the ages of 18 and 25 (Tye Sheridan, Moises Arias, Johnny Simmons, Nicholas Braun, Thomas Mann, James Frecheville, Chris Sheffield, Logan Miller, etc.), and the performances are generally good, though they’re hindered by the laughably fake era-appropriate mustaches and hairstyles some of them wear.

But as the prisoners and guards grow more adversarial and the experiment falls into dangerous territory, Tim Talbott’s screenplay collapses into melodramatic outbursts. The complicated dynamics among the participants are oversimplified to the point of being campy. We see X leading to Y leading to Z, but we don’t buy that these actions would produce these results.

What’s more, Zimbardo comes across as recklessly committed to not interfering with the experiment. He responds defensively when a colleague asks a legitimate question about his methodology. To use a psychological term, he seems like a bit of a nut. I half expected the title card at the end to say the real Zimbardo was fired and never worked again, but he actually had a long, illustrious career and is highly esteemed in his field. Whether it’s in the writing, or Crudup’s performance, or maybe even the editing — when things are at their worst in the prison, it keeps cutting to a shot of Zimbardo at the TV monitor, leering with fascination — somewhere, I suspect the portrait of Zimbardo that’s coming across isn’t the one that was intended.

C (2 hrs.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some violence, disturbing themes, some nonsexual nudity.)

Originally published at GeekNation.