The Stanford Prison Experiment



This disquieting drama is hardly more positive about human nature than was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.


Stanford Prison Experiment

Tye Sheridan 


It was in 2001 thirty years after a controversial study took place in America at Stanford University that the German director Oliver Hirschbiegel made Der Experiment a film version of a novel derived from those events transposed to Cologne. That movie did well enough to lead to a projected English language version almost at once, but the venture stalled and was then overtaken by another adaptation of the same story which never obtained a cinema release here (that was 2010’s The Experiment starring Adrien Brody). Now, however, we have this long delayed treatment of a screenplay by Tom Talbott which, as directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez - a new name to me - is actually rather good.


Given here its real-life setting, the film credits a book by Dr Philip Zimbardo who all those years ago led the experiment during the University’s summer vacation. What was being undertaken was a psychological investigation into the effect of life behind bars. It involved paying a number of youngsters who applied to spend two weeks in simulated prison conditions be it in the roles of prisoners or of guards. Although the end credits describe the film as a work of fiction, it would seem that the screenplay closely follows the actual events which, intended as research that would supply useful lessons for the prison system, led to unexpectedly horrifying results. In assuming their allotted roles, the chosen applicants soon revealed sadistic instincts among those playing guards and a cowed acceptance of the situation by the prisoners once it became clear that any protest would lead to painful humiliation for those who dared to step out of line by raising questions. Hardly less disturbing was the extent to which Zimbardo and his team were ready to stand by and let events take their course.


What emerges is a powerful, albeit overlong, portrayal of what happened which leaves the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about what is being learnt here about human nature and about the validity of projects such as this one. Alvarez’s direction is strikingly intelligent: he is his own editor and an opening montage of applicants being questioned makes for an excellent start. Be it the use of tracking shots or the ultra-close images in a climactic confrontation, this is technically accomplished filmmaking with Andrew Hewitt’s music score helping the film to avoid melodrama and to emerge as something akin to heightened documentary. It could be more succinct towards the end, but the film is suitably disturbing and all the more so because of the excellence of the performances. Billy Crudup appears as Dr Zimbardo but it is the youngsters who stand out. That is particularly true of Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan among the prisoners  and of Michael Angarano as the guard who relishes his exercise of power despite the fact that, as the film is at pains to stress, which applicants were used as guards and which as prisoners was decided by the toss of a coin. 




Cast: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby, Nicholas Braun, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Logan Miller, Johnny Simmons, Jack Kilmer, Jesse Carere, Chris Sheffield, Nelsan Ellis.

Dir Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Pro Lauren Bratman, Greg Little, Brent Emery and others, Screenplay Tim Tal-bott from the book by Philip Zimbardo, Ph Jas Shelton, Pro Des Gary Barbosa, Ed Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Music Andrew Hewitt, Costumes Lisa Tomczeszyn.

Coup d’Etat Films/Sandbar Pictures/Abandon Pictures-Munro Film Services.
122 mins. USA. 2015. Rel: 10 June 2016. Cert. 15