Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez examines the psychological research conducted in August, 1971, by Dr. Philip Zimbardo and funded, in part, by the U.S. Dept. of Naval Research. Zimbardo randomly divided 24 Stanford University students into prisoners and guards and placed them in an improvised prison in the basement of Jordan Hall, paying them $15 a day to participate. Read on…
Almost immediately, as the volunteers assumed their assigned roles, they exhibited behavior that reflected distress and despair, abuse and degrading, sexualized humiliation, proving how situation shapes conduct.
As one of Zimbardo’s graduate-student assistants says, “I don’t think we can call this an experiment anymore. It’s a demonstration.”
Taught in journalism classes today, this notorious study illustrates questionable methodology/ethics, the frightening pliability of reality, and the effects of power in all its permutations. It’s another “Lord of the Flies.”
Adapted by Tim Talbott from Zimbardo’s 2007 book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” it’s a horrifying re-enactment, featuring Billy Crudup as imperious, often patronizing, Zimbardo who later served as an expert witness in one of the Abu Ghraib trials.
Ezra Miller (“Trainwreck”) delivers a memorable performance as rebellious Prisoner #8612, along with Michael Angarano (“The Knick”) as the cocky, manipulative guard who adopts a John Wayne persona, complete with swagger and Southern drawl.
And there’s a simmering class/race undercurrent, epitomized by Zimbardo’s ‘consultant,’ Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), an ex-con who spent 17 years in San Quentin.
Working closely with Alvarez, cinematographer Jas Shelton emphasizes the claustrophobia with tight close-ups and tracking shots up and down the hall.
Unfortunately, there are no backstories about the students, except poor Prisoner #2093 (Chris Sheffield), who was living in his car for the summer.
And the muddled third act wavers between ambiguity and cautionary oratory, followed by a bewildering epilogue that seems at odds with the rest of the narrative. It’s amazing that Zimbardo and the University weren’t sued by the subjects.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is an intense, provocative 6, as role-playing goes horribly awry.