The Stanford Prison Experiment online movie review - So unflinching and brutal that you might need to remind yourself it's not a documentary
Kyle Patrick Alvarez's directorial debut The Stanford Prison Experiment makes no qualms about what it's about. It concerns the famous Stanford University prison experiment that was conducted by psychology professor Dr.
Philip Zimbardo, who studied the personality traits and behaviors of a group of male participants over what was supposed to be a two week experiment. The plan was to create a mock prison, located in the basement of the psychology department in Stanford, where three of the men would assume the roles of prison guards and the remaining would assume the roles of prisoners. Upon being selected for the roles and promised pay of $15 a day, the prisoners undergo the process of being arrested, booked, and jailed, while the guards try to maintain order and control over the prisoners. It doesn't take long for things to get completely out of hand, as the guards become physically and mentally abusive within the first twenty-four hours and the prisoners begin retaliating. Observing all the chaos as it unfolds is Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup), who even himself becomes abusive over the course of the experiment. Joining him in monitoring the actions of the subjects are his girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) and a team of psychology students.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the strongest thrillers I've seen in a long time, and one of the best ensembles I've seen from last year, featuring a cast of young stars that will only continue to climb the ranks as tomorrow's movie stars. The prisoners are made up of Tye Sheridan, who gave us a tender, minimalist performance in 2014's Joe, It's Kind of a Funny Story's Keir Gilchrist, Thomas Mann, who played the awkward and sensitive Greg in last year's Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, Red State and The Brass Teapot's charming Michael Angarano, as well as Angarano's co-star from Red State Nicholas Braun, and the aforementioned Olivia Thirlby.
In a sea of challenging roles played incredibly well by such a young cast, Ezra Miller's - who has been on a hot-streak ever since his haunting performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin - heartbreaking performance as the famous "Prisoner 8612," one of two prisoners to be released from the experiment early due to mental instability and an emotional breakdown, is probably the most impressive given all the energy Miller must exhaust. Rather than boiling slowly before finally overflowing with emotion like most of the cast, Miller must showcase his agitation and repeated frustration early, as well as playing a role that requires for arguably the most physicality than any of his peers. Needless to say, he's tremendous and his heartbreaking testament to Zimbardo's unblinking "eye" camera almost effectively matches the authenticity and the pleas of the same testament from the real-life "Prisoner 8612."
Crudup's methodical and largely low-key performance is sure to go under-the-radar in the face of all the young and riled talent on display here, but screenwriter Tim Talbott gives him a very quiet character to work with at first. Crudup's Zimbardo is a largely passive and free-spirited soul, who is more interested in how this experiment will surprise him than anything. When he sees the actions of the guards turn violent and abusive, initially against his rules, despite being implored to reprimand the boys, he allows it to build and watches his subjects sleeplessly, for nights on end, as they grow more restless and violent.
Assisting Talbott's terrific writing, which gives all the boys their time to shine and brings out the best in them to make this film the best in many of their filmographies, is Alvarez's direction, which is claustrophobic and bent on repetition. Consider the scene where the guards make the prisoners stand in a straight line and repeatedly recite the numbers on their uniforms and the uniforms on the person standing next to them. The result is maddening tedium for the boys, and very well could've been for the audience if Alvarez didn't wisely employ revealing closeups on the faces and the numbers of the boys. Alvarez finds ways to keep it interesting and pleasantly doesn't manipulate us into pathos when things take a real turn for the shocking. His direction is simultaneously simple yet rhythmic and shocking beautiful, which is a rare characteristic for a film with such a drab color palette and a thoroughly bleak story and subtext.
But The Stanford Prison Experiment is a raw piece of work, sometimes so believably unflinching and brutal you swear you're watching a documentary. It takes a magnifying glass to the ugliness of perceived human authority and behavior in a setting where no authority or identity is valid. At two hours, Alvarez and Talbott have just enough time to let things boil and develop before, just like Zimbardo had to eventually do to the real-life experiment in 1971, they have to end it all. This is a seriously compelling and rare film that showcases so much with so little and leaves a subtle brand on your brand that reminds you what we all could be capable of given the circumstances.
Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Ki Hong Lee, Nelsan Ellis, Logan Miller, Nicholas Braun, Olivia Thirlby, Thomas Mann, and Keir Gilchrist. Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez.