By Don Simpson | July 14, 2015
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Writer: Tim Talbott, Philip Zimbardo (source book, The Lucifer Effect)
Starring: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun, Gaius Charles, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Ezra Miller, Logan Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, James Wolk, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis, Matt Bennett, Jesse Carere, Brett Davern, James Frecheville, Miles Heizer, Jack Kilmer, Callan McAuliffe, Benedict Samuel, Chris Sheffield, Harrison Thomas
In the summer of 1971, psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) converted the basement of a Stanford University psychology building into a makeshift prison. Then, after a somewhat lackadaisical interview process, Zimbardo and his colleagues (Matt Bennett, Gaius Charles, James Wolk) selected 24 male students to portray either guards or prisoners for a period of two weeks in return for monetary compensation. The participants were provided with a safety net of sorts, instructed that there could not be any physical violence.
Funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Stanford Prison Experiment was intended to be an investigation into the causes of conflict between prisoners and guards. Surveillance cameras were setup so Zimbardo and his cohorts could observe and document the interactions within the claustrophobic hallway of the prison set. Zimbardo even brings in a former San Quentin inmate (Nelsan Ellis) to confirm the authenticity of the experiment.
A classic study of the psychology of imprisonment, some of the guards fully embody their positions of power, while the prisoners choose to be either compliant or rebellious. Sooner than anyone could have possibly predicted, the atmosphere of the experiment spirals out of control. The prisoners quickly lose track of time and grow increasingly paranoid; the guards cross the line into psychological torture and sadistic behavior.
Like the audience of a violent film, Zimbardo and his associates remain complicit, seemingly entertained by the goings on. Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment is as much about voyeurism as it is about the primal impulses of human beings. It is not without purpose that Zimbardo takes the role of a maniacal director, while the 24 participants are cast like the willing actors of a film. Knowing that someone is always on the other side of the lens observing them, the prisoners feel safe, but the guards decide to test the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior. Some guards, such as Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano), look towards cinematic characters to influence their performances. When there is no outside intervention, the atmosphere on the prison set rapidly breaks down.
If Alvarez’s film was not based on real-life events — it is adapted from Zimbardo’s 2007 book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil — it would definitely be scrutinized for being completely implausible, not only because the experiment grows so dangerous so quickly, but also because this happens all under the watchful eye of presumably responsible psychologists. In this case, truth certainly is stranger than fiction.