‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ review – A psychological experience that will take ages to shake off

“I had no idea it would turn out this well.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment is replete with lines such as these whose only purpose is to chill your mind to the core, a shock that comes from your disbelief at the extents of what people are capable of. In some strange way, the film makes the viewers a part of the experiment, as we as humans refuse to believe how cruel the human mind can become given the right situation – in short, Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s famous ‘Lucifer Effect’. Yet as disturbing as it is to the viewers, the film quickly loses sight of the purpose of the actual experiment and resorts to drama and horror, leaving them with a scare that cannot be shaken off.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment, to those who are unfamiliar with it, was a psychological study conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in Jordan Hall of Stanford in the summer of 1971. An ad was put out in the papers, calling for male volunteers for a ‘study in prison behaviour’ which would last for 2 weeks. The volunteers were then screened by Zimbardo and his team of researchers to weed out the ones with unusual mental behaviour, and then they were allotted statuses of ‘prisoner’ and ‘guard’ by random coin-flip selection. The ‘guards’ were given uniforms, nightsticks and pairs of sunglasses, both to strengthen the sense of divided status between the ‘prisoners’ and them, and to allow the students to assume the roles they had taken on. It was made clear to them that they were to make known their power and control over every moment of the ‘prisoners’’ lives, but to refrain from physical violence or manhandling the prisoners. The ‘prisoners’ were ‘arrested’ from their homes, blindfolded and taken to the hall of teachers’ offices which had been converted into a prison hall, with the offices operating as prison cells and the lockers as the ‘hole’ for solitary punishment. They were stripped, deloused and made to wear smocks, chains and caps, and assigned numbers. From then on, they were part of one of the most notorious yet academically significant studies in psychology – a study which would engulf not only the students, but the researchers watching them as well.

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To say that Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film is disturbing would be falling short: jaw-dropping would be the more appropriate term, at least purely based on my facial composition through its runtime. This film is testament to the fact that reality is oftentimes far scarier than fiction, and the experiment it documents laid the foundation for that study: that humans are not aware of the capabilities of their evil, and the potential effects of a negative environment on individuality. If the proverbial nail was to hammer home the lengths to which the study escalated in a matter of days and the disturbing realization of prison mentality which the study managed, then it hits in on the head every single time. A harrowingly affecting experience, where the film misses the point is in focusing all its energy on the prisoners and failing to examine the guards, who created perhaps the more frightening result of the study. We know that the students who were confined and exposed to degradation and abuse would react in a similar fashion, of initial revolution leading to acceptance of a controlling authority. The easily more interesting question then is how the students playing ‘guards’ came to assume those personas – alien to them before, and incredible to the observer – and the potential for evil in all of us.

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I find that it is always extremely difficult to judge real stories depicted on film, especially if it involves a documented study on which theses and books have been written. There are always two elements to such a production then: one, the pure cinematic effectiveness of the film and two, how much it embodies the purpose and consequence of the real event. The event in this case being one of the most infamous experiments in recent history – one that invited at once harsh criticism and humanitarian rebuke from the public and academic acclaim in the field of psychology – makes it all the more difficult to go wrong. Therefore, it is all the more important that I separate my thoughts on the one and the other carefully, for it has succeeded heavily on the first count, and perhaps lost sight of the second. The Stanford Prison Experiment is easily the most disturbing film I have seen in quite some time, and the effects are sure to not leave my head for days. In conjuring the claustrophobic and mentally abusive atmosphere of the ‘prison’ it is masterful, so in its acting prowess; yet the overarching feeling is that the emotional drama was at the expense of the scientific purpose. It is better watched as a theatrical documentation of the events that transpired, rather than reflecting the results and conclusion of the actual study.

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This is a film that has the ability to outrage every humane sensibility within its viewer; to absorb the audiences deep within it, until they cannot look away from the screen and are transfixed by the potential carried within our minds. There were too many times when I found myself asking, rather screaming in my head, as to why the prisoners stood for all of this, why they chose to accept this status, and to not even babble to their parents, who were for sure the one ray of hope for them. But that’s it, isn’t it? As the students said at the end of the whole experiment, we weren’t there. In capturing the physical and mental prison the ‘prisoners’ were incarcerated in, and the emotional trauma they – just college students, behind all the smocks and numbers – were subjected to, the film is impressively successful. Watching the slow descent of the students from snickering camp-behaviour to mental breakdowns or acceptance perfectly recreates the shock that neutral observers of the study would have experienced, as well as the public once they came to know of it. I use the word ‘slow’ despite the study only lasting for a surprising total of 6 days – less than half the duration scheduled – as the audience resonates with the prisoners in their loss of a sense of time and days, deprived of sunlight, sleep and proper meals as they were. It is a film of staggering moments, with the tension rising ever so gradually that you are entrapped before you realise it.

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All of this is achieved in no small part due to the breathtaking performances of its young actors; in particular Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan, though every single one was raw in bringing their characters to life. Ezra Miller is an actor I have been watching closely for his past few roles, and has continuously managed to awe with the emotion and method that he brings to his characters, all of which are usually painted in abuse and mental distress. The easily more surprising one is the portrayal of the ‘John Wayne’ guard by Angarano, who I can remember seeing last only in Sky High – a Disney teen production about a superhero school – here in a light so different we forget that he is but an actor playing a role. This is a highly ironic and fitting remark to make I find, now that I’ve made it, as it plays true for the student as well: so engrossed in his role of power that we forget that it is but a student playing the role of ‘guard’. Angarano’s John Wayne (as he was referred to by the researchers for his persona modelled after the badass actor) is at the other end of the spectrum to Miller’s prisoner 8612: the former falling into character with unnerving ease and cooking up imaginative ways of evil, and the latter ‘wimp’ refusing to accept his situation and any form of abuse, attempting to revolt against the system.

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As I said before, masterful as it is in its emotional depiction, where the film derails is in its representation of purpose and the taste left at the end. In not straining for a moment to let the audience into the minds of the ‘guards’, the film fails to present the two sides in juxtaposition, which only together form the study as it stands. While it is understandable that the filmmakers would choose to drive the story through characters audiences would much easier relate to (always the oppressed, never the oppressor), it only strays that much further from the conclusion of the experiment. The important lesson learnt is the nascent potential for evil in all of us, and how given the right circumstances and power, that seed can take over and completely change our personas to fit those of the ‘guards’. Dr. Zimbardo’s experiment was preceded by the Milgram Experiment on obedience, which tested how far humans are capable of inflicting pain on their fellows, if asked to do so. The startling results of that study, as accentuated in Zimbardo’s was how a negative environment can free the mind of inhibitions and turn people into characters they never knew before, in assuming their assigned identities. A definite strength of the film is in its depiction of how slowly and unknowingly, Zimbardo and his team of researchers also were drawn into the assigned roles of the superintendents as easily as the ‘guards’, and how this let them keep it going and encourage the abusive behaviour. An especially brilliant moment is achieved when Jesse Fletcher – who has had experiences in prison – easily mirrors the role of his once tormentors in mentally beating down a ‘prisoner’, and then realizes what the experiment has done to him and the others. The film falls just short of genius by failing to give the same treatment to the ‘guards’ and especially ‘John Wayne’, whose personal assumption of evil and authority would have been not only all the more interesting, but also vital to the experiment.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment definitely has its flaws in light of the actual documented experiment, in the attention it affords to all the players involved. This is especially witnessed at the end, when Dr. Zimbardo’s breaking point seems antithetical to the purpose he had been striving for, driven to ending the experiment at the sight of a different kind of abuse which was otherwise not a far leap from whatever had transpired. This is not to take away, as I said, from the mastery of filmmaking at play here, as Alvarez and his team applies the right amount of theatricality and drama, while remaining clinical in wherever its approach extends. It is definitely a must-see, and is an experience sure to mess with your head for some time after the credits, both for the cold realization of human evil as well as the sympathy from the use of students as guinea pigs in the name of science. A simply amazing cast and cold, prison-like cinematography lend themselves well to the story, creating a film that prevents your turning away from the screen for even a moment.

Rating: 7.9/10

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One thought on “‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ review – A psychological experience that will take ages to shake off

  1. Pingback: Best of 2015 in Film | DavidandStan Movies

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