A few weeks ago, I wrote about Experimenter, a film that dramatises one of the most famous psychological studies of all time. This week, I watched its accidental companion piece, The Stanford Prison Experiment, which tells the story of what may be the only other such study to rival Stanley Milgram’s in terms of notoriety and pop culture longevity. In 1971, Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo paid 24 mostly middle-class and white male students $15 a day to play the roles of inmates and guards in a simulated prison environment built in a university basement. The horrifying results have been cited continuously in the decades since in conversations about topics ranging from authoritarianism and group psychology to scientific ethics and morality.
The film, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, differs from other popular retellings of the study as well as from Experimenter in several key ways. Where Experimenter dealt in metaphors and more than a couple stylistic abstractions, The Stanford Prison Experiment goes literal, sometimes even to its detriment. For the most part, however, it’s the bluntness and ruthless immediacy with which it makes its distressing point that contributes to its overall effectiveness. Where other versions of this story — Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Das Experiment and Paul Scheuring’s The Experiment among them — embellish the story with oppressive locations and graphic depictions of actual physical violence, Alvarez’s movie sticks closer to what happened. In reality, the violence inflicted was of the emotional kind and, in some ways, all the more disturbing for it.
As is widely known, many of the students who played guards quickly began exhibiting sadistic tendencies, casually and routinely humiliating the prisoners in ongoing efforts to erode their individuality and collective will. The latter group shifted, for the most part.
As is widely known, many of the students who played guards quickly began exhibiting sadistic tendencies, casually and routinely humiliating the prisoners in ongoing efforts to erode their individuality and collective will. The latter group shifted, for the most part, into submissive roles with discomfiting speed, accepting the increasingly dehumanizing treatment they received with meek acceptance. Some even began to believe they were real convicts in an actual prison. The more rebellious ones among them were brutally punished. Fascinatingly, the students were all chosen for being the most emotionally stable of the pool of applicants and the division into guards and inmates was achieved not via character assessments but by coin toss. Even Zimbardo, who should have put an end to the nightmare twelve hours in, found himself holding out despite his assistants’ pleas, slipping into an enabling ‘warden’ role with a smug satisfaction rivaling that of the guards and unintentionally becoming part of the experiment.
Alvarez recreates everything scrupulously. He drops us in the thick of things with plenty of close-ups and ominous tracking shots, intensifying the claustrophobia and visually highlighting the work of a uniformly excellent young cast. Michael Angarano, who plays the alpha guard, and Ezra Miller, as a rebellious and likely unstable prisoner, deserve particular credit, as does Billy Crudup whose nuanced work as Zimbardo somehow manages to balance the creation of a POV character with communicating the essential arrogance of a man who enjoyed playing God for way too long until common sense (in the form of his wife-to-be and fellow academic Christina Maslach) took over.
Barring an on-the-nose exchange between Zimbardo and Maslach towards the end of the film, Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbott refrain from incorporating too much explicit editorializing or explaining. The performances and the cruelty on display do the work for them, tracing the ugly reality of a species whose members appear hardwired to find their seemingly preordained places in entrenched systems of tyranny and debasement. Like Experimenter, the film shows us the uncomfortable truth of what happens to human beings when accountability is stripped away. The thin veneer of civilization dissolves and the old primal instincts kick in.