‘The Stanford Prison Experiment': Sundance Review

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A rich, thought-provoking film but flawed by a muddled third act

Billy Crudup stars opposite an all-stars-in-the-making cast of young men in this dramatization of the notorious 1971 psychology experiment, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez.

Serving the time, but not quite sure if there ever was a crime, The Stanford Prison Experiment is frustratingly almost excellent. A dramatization of what happened in 1971 when psychologist Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) paid university students to play either prisoners or guards to investigate how situation shapes behavior, it features bravura ensemble work from its young, nearly all-male cast and sweatily tense set pieces staged with aplomb by third-time director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Easier With Practice, C.O.G.). Unfortunately, the final proof is an inconclusive tangle of data, vacillating between ambiguity and on-the-nose speechifying, capped by a baffling epilogue that seems diametrically at odds with what’s preceded it. As a theatrical proposition, this will struggle to break out of the specialty circuit, although its toothsome lineup of up-and-coming actors may improve prospects.

Perhaps some of that muddled tone in the last act of writer Tim Talbott’s may be the result of too much proximity to Dr. Zimbardo himself, whose book about his experiment, The Lucifer Effect, takes a “based on” credit here. Just before the end credits roll (and don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler), onscreen text reveals that he stayed on at Stanford University until retiring in 2003, and that the experiment has come to be considered a landmark study with lasting influence in the field.

The language sounds uncritically laudatory, and sure, that’s one way of looking at it. But for roughly 90 minutes of the film’s two-hour running time Crudup’s imperious, emotionally disconnected Zimbardo has seemed like a far-from-heroic figure. Patronizing toward his graduate-student assistants and even more so his wife, Christina (Olivia Thirlby), herself a former student of his, it’s clear that he’s gotten lost himself in the role-playing game he’s created.

Even in his few moments of lucidity, when it’s clear some of the guards have used the experiment to indulge sadistic impulses, he hesitates over wasting the money invested in the experiment by stopping it. Toward the end, one of the “guards” forces a prisoner to walk like Boris Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein, but the real Victor Frankenstein is Zimbardo, watching the proceedings via primitive CCTV in a room down the hall. At one point, during a confrontation with a rebellious “prisoner” (Ezra Miller), the costuming has Zimbardo dressed in the same menacing aviator glasses as the guards, underscoring his solidarity with their invented authority.

Crudup's performance here will count as a career high, but this is truly an ensemble piece, which gives equal weight to both the men in the virtual lab coats (actually, they’re in period-accurate suits and sport jackets mostly) and the rats in the maze. All are introduced in an adroitly edited opening montage that shuffles together the selection interviews, a screening process designed to choose subjects who were “exceptional” only for their normalcy. (There’s a great line when one is asked whether he has a history of sexual deviancy, to which he replies, “No,” followed by perfectly timed pause, “I’m a Stanford student.”)

Read more Sundance: Eli Roth's 'Knock Knock' Selling to Lionsgate

Of course, that raises questions about how the experimenters defined normal, because clearly there are great deviations in character among the 18 selected, the roles as prisoners or guards decided by coin flips. This being 1971, when the counterculture was still in full swing, no one wants to be a guard, but it turns out being a prisoner is not the easy gig some expect. One guard (a superb Michael Angarano, from The Knick), referred to by the subjects and researchers mostly as “John Wayne” because of his affected Southern Drawl and hard-man swagger, quickly becomes a leader among the enforcers, discovering within himself a gleeful taste for inventing new cruelties.

Even for audience members aware of what actually happened (adhered to reasonably closely here, but with some dramatic license), the scenes in the makeshift prison — little more than a hallway of empty offices and a broom cupboard repurposed as a solitary isolation chamber — are grueling to watch. Alvarez and cinematographer Jas Shelton amp up the claustrophobia via tight close-ups and pacing dolly shots up and down the hall. It doesn’t take long for the prisoners to crack, even a natural rebel upstart like Daniel Culp aka Prisoner 81612 (Miller), who tries to rally the others to overthrow the regime.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Talbott’s script, although some may find it too frustrating, is its refusal to provide backstories for the characters, even if their respective personalities emerge vividly in extremis. Apart from Prisoner 2093 (Chris Sheffield), who mentions that he’s been living in his car for the summer, the rest are as anonymous as their numbers. It’s as if they left their previous identities behind along with their freedom and, in the guards’ case, moral centers once they signed on for the project in exchange for $15 a day.

Nonetheless, the film doesn’t have to go into the specifics about them to suggest that they’re almost all pretty privileged just by the fact that they’re white college students, and there’s a pungent undercurrent about class and race running through the film, especially since one of the researchers’ advisors (Nelsan Ellis) is a former San Quentin inmate of color who obviously seems bent on extracting some kind of symbolic revenge on the experiment’s subjects. The cruelties inflicted on the prisoners also have a particularly timely resonance considering the recent examples of police brutality and abuse of power in the U.S., while shots of the prisoners being marched around with paper bags on their head unmistakably evoke the treatment of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.

See more From "Literally" to "F— Yeah": Sarah Silverman, Ewan McGregor, and More Share Their Overused Phrases

All of which makes it even harder to square with the epilogue’s tribute to Zimbardo and his research. What happened in Stanford’s Jordan Hall in 1971 to a layperson looks like just another instance of academics using research grants to prove what’s been obvious since the Holocaust and before: that it doesn’t take much to trigger the basest instincts in human beings. (Stanley Milgram’s 1963 experiments where individual subjects administered shocks to strangers is the subject of Experimenter, another film in this year’s Sundance festival). The fact that Zimbardo wasn’t dismissed by Stanford and sued by his subjects (which would probably have happened if the experiment had been run today), surely means the science of psychology, if it is a science, found something of value in the experiment, but the film doesn’t explain that adequately, or what the immediate repercussions were back in the day.

Even so, for all its flaws it’s a rich, thought-provoking film which, while challenging, is not without humor and visual pleasures, particularly in the restrained but bang-on period production design.

Production companies: A Sandbar Pictures, Abandon Features presentation in association with Coup d’Etat Films, Vinyard Point Productions
Cast:Billy Crudup, Jack Kilmer, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Ki Hong Lee, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Tye Sheridan, Callan McAuliffe, Johnny Simmons, Chris Sheffield, Nelsan Ellis, James Frecheville, Thomas Mann, Nicholas Braun
Director:Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Screenwriter: Tim Talbott, based on the book ‘The Lucifer Effect’ by Philip Zimbardo
Producers: Brent Emery, Lizzie Friedman, Karen Lauder, Greg Little, Lauren Bratman
Executive producers: Katie Leary, Bob Leary, Brian Geraghty
Director of photography: Jas Shelton
Production designer: Gary Barbosa
Costume designer: Lisa Tomczeszyn
Editor: Fernando Collins
Music: Andrew Hewitt
Casting: Angela Demo, Barbara McCarthy
Sales: UTA Independent Film Group

No rating, 121 minutes