Any psychology student worth their salt knows the 1971 Stanford prison experiment; and after watching this film, the general populace won’t forget.
Based on the (in)famous social experiment, Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) divides 24 students into ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’, turns the Stanford University basement into a mock prison, and, whether intentionally or not, lets all hell break loose. Despite instruction not to, the guards employ increasingly sadistic tactics to subdue the prisoners, and Zimbardo himself slips deep into the experiment.
With events that build on one another with such ferocity, The Stanford Prison Experiment could feel ridiculous, and yet screenwriter Talbott did not have to reach far. ‘Based on a true story’ turns what could be silly into a (literally) psychological thriller, packing on chill after chill. No one, character or audience, can tear their eyes away; Alvarez constantly creeps up on his characters, echoing the bank of square-screened ’70s televisions on which Zimbardo and his graduate assistants watch the prison, and turns the voyeur into the viewed.
Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano bring credibility to their performances, making the switch from students Daniel and Christopher to Prisoner 8612 and ‘John Wayne’ guard accelerate with terrifying speed and intensity. Zimbardo, the spider at the centre of this web, could have been a Dracula-esque dummy villain; instead he breathes into life through Crudup’s subtly nuanced performance. It’s a slow slide into complicity with inhuman acts, helped no doubt by the presence of the real man himself as an on-set consultant. That connection to the real world shines through, avoiding the melodrama that might have reigned in someone else’s hands.
The Stanford Prison Experiment isn’t so much a period thriller as it is a modern horror in ’70s clothing, vividly confronting its audience with the depths the human soul can plunge to, given the right circumstances; and, like the guards in their jumpsuits and sunglasses, it refuses to play nice.
CAST: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun
DIRECTOR: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
WRITERS: Tim Talbott (screenplay), Philip Zimbardo (book)
SYNOPSIS: Twenty-four male college students take on randomly assigned roles of prisoner and guard in an experiment conducted in the basement of the Stanford University psychology building, with unexpected and escalating consequences.