This review was originally published as part of our Sundance Film Festival 2015 coverage. It is being re-posted to coincide with the film’s limited theatrical release.
By now, most adults are familiar with the Stanford prison experiment. In 1971, a study was conducted to explore the psychological effects of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. What resulted inevitably proved to be valuable information for psychology, but damaging to some of the participants. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a fictional take on the experiment that dramatizes the various conflicts that took place.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Release Date: January 26, 2015 (Sundance)
In 1971, Stanford Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) compiles a group of volunteers to conduct his psychological study of the relationship between prisoners and guards. Left to police themselves, the guards quickly exploit their power and creating friction between the two factions. As the mistreatment continues, some of the prisoners, led by Prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller), begin to revolt back against the guards, led by a “John Wayne-esque” guard (Michael Angarano). As the experiment devolves into a simulation and more of Zimbardo’s colleagues leave the experiment, Zimbardo finds himself wholly captivated by the ensuing results. However, it isn’t until Zimbardo’s girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) joins the experiment that he truly realizes his mistake and calls the proceedings off… but is it too late for some of the prisoners?
The Stanford Prison Experiment is rooted in its feelings of claustrophobia to characterize the discomfort the prisoners experience, whether they take place in the form of tight, close-up shots in both enclosed closets and open hallways. The suspense builds through the film as each prisoner slowly breaks from their psychological torture, yet The Stanford Prison Experiment never feels like there’s anything truly at stake. The tension bubbles and boils, but it never really reaches the breaking point. Could this arguably have been a conscious decision to play with the film’s theme of psychological torture? Perhaps, but I think that’s giving the film too much credit.
Miller and Angarano shine as foils to one another, but considering the mostly anonymous nature of the experiment, no one really shines beyond the two. In fact, once Miller’s character is released from the experiment, no one prisoner/actor steps up to fill the glaring hole in the film’s conflict, allowing Angarano’s antagonist to take over.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a psychological suspense/thriller that ultimately doesn’t pay off in the end. It doesn’t help that the film is very slow moving and feels way too long. I can’t express how great Miller and Angarano’s performances are, but I’m not entirely sure plodding through the film is worth seeing them.