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Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment


Among the most notorious psychological studies in human history, The Stanford Prison Experiment re-creates the events that pitted a group of American college students against each other as prisoners and guards, that resulted in very harsh consequences for the both participants and the larger discipline in itself.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film opens with Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) recruiting various undergraduates in and around the campus, wanting to make some extra money before the next school year – not thinking greatly about what the ramifications of the experiment. Dividing the applicants through process of random ordering, and creating a makeshift cell block from empty offices, Zimbardo’s study held the purpose of depicting how the average person reacts when they are put into an environment of extreme imprisonment, or conversely, one with opportunity for dictating power and abuse. As the film documents, it doesn’t take very long for the participants to begin mentally deteriorating, as they uphold the parameters of the experiment and fully commit to their roles, while the situation escalates to its eventual breaking point.

Alvarez’s film stays very close to the original events, culled from an expansive amount of research and archival footage, and the authenticity really shows itself on the screen. Despite the harsh events which unfold, it becomes very difficult to look away from the screen at certain moments, as one becomes very absorbed in the story and suturing themselves within the narrative. The sequences set in the cell block are incredibly claustrophobic and a case could be made for a correlation towards contemporary examples of prisoner abuse such as the U.S. Army Abu Ghraib case in 2003.

What makes the film especially compelling is the rich roster of talent, mostly consisting of young actors such as Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, and Thomas Mann on the side of the prisoners. The strongest performance comes from Michael Angarano as one of the students playing a guard, who draws his persona from the sadistic prison warden in Cool Hand Luke. Every moment Angarano is on screen is full of magnetic and spellbinding power, despite the inherent cruelty being displayed. As Zimbardo, the man overseeing the events, Billy Crudup oscillates between the hero and the villain of the story, as his ambition towards the study begins to take control of his focus and he devolves into allowing for strictly forbidden and dangerous acts to occur – only caring about seeing the results of his research.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is an endearing analysis of how one’s identity can be bent and broken by the environment they are present within, and the dangers of absolute power in most unethical hands. It is very effective, albeit disturbing, and works as an effective translation of the original story to the filmic medium.

[star v=4]