It’s hard to imagine anyone watching The Stanford Prison Experiment hasn’t at least vaguely heard of the study conducted back in 1971. But those who don’t may find themselves experiencing a hard-to-believe true life film akin to others in the past. Compliance, in particular, is an almost too-easy recent comparison because of said uncomfortable situations being forced upon both the characters and the audience.
Where Compliance reveled in its unrealistic scenario though — almost gut-punching the audience with the sheer stupidity of its character decisions — The Stanford Prison Experiment solely chooses to document reality by exposing human nature rather than linger on character decisions too long. It’s actually a rather fascinating film at times, and a timely one with the audience of issues we’re currently having vis-à-vis police brutality and the way that, regardless of how “good” individuals believe they are, an ounce of power brings out the worst in people. That being said, it’s far from great.
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and writer Tim Talbot kick off the movie with a series of questions lobbed at its characters by the folks running the study — but not before offering up a gorgeous little wordless intro segment about printing the study ad. To give an idea of what they’re looking at in these participants, here are a few: “Have you ever talked to a psychiatrist about an emotional problem?” “Have you ever attempted to kill yourself?” “Have you ever given into rape or domestic violence?” “If selected for this study, would you rather be a guard or a prisoner?” As it turns out, none of it matters, because everything was decided by the flip of a coin. And so the experiment begins, with Talbot sticking (presumably) as closely to the records of what happened in real life as well as possible, though it’s impossible to deny that some of the dialogue feel embellished, whether or not it actually is.
Its first half is its absolute strongest, with Alvarez refusing to allow the presentation to be anything other than uncomfortable, even when there’s a sense of levity in the way dialogue is presented. Sure, the guards occasionally laugh about things just as the prisoners do at the very start, but things shift almost instantly once certain events happen. For instance, watching Ezra Miller’s character, 8612, stand around nude, exposed, and blindfolded, patiently waiting for the half-wit guards to “delouse” him is almost agonizing even though nothing has happened up to this point in the first act. In part, maybe the discomfort in scenes can be attributed to the awareness of the experiment and its events. The slow progression of corruptness and instability that invades the guards and prisoners is harrowing, but it eventually loses steam.
Cuts to the folks behind the scenes populate the film and offer a mixed bag, with certain elements coming across as forced and others nailing just how paranoid and inconsiderate of what he was doing to human beings the head of the project, Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), was. It never places him in a favorable light, but it’s when the film slows down to try to humanize him that it hits its lowest point, making the back half a slog after a mostly stunning first. Speaking of slowing down, whatever prompted Alvarez to slip in slow-motion segments is baffling, as they’re clearly intended to add impact, but painfully fail at that. Andrew Hewitt’s score doesn’t help either, becoming incredibly invasive during these scenes and a few others.
The rest of the film is shot surprisingly well, though it sometimes leaves one to wonder what things would have been like with photography that was a little more static and a little less reliant on close-ups when there’s not much to say with them (the “Prisoner 819 did a bad thing” scene a prime example). Nothing is quite as messy as the interview segments that close the film and should have been entirely left out, but at the very least, the performances from the ensemble mostly make up for some of the film’s faults.
The Stanford Prison Experiment requests a lot from all its actors, and it’s hard to say any single person is incapable of delivering the material, because they’re not. It’s just that some of the written material isn’t exactly easy to deliver with a straight face. Discussing them all would take forever, but it boils down to Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, and Billy Crudup getting the most to work with and delivering on it, while Tye Sheridan is left for dead, Nelsan Ellis is handed some of the worst dialogue, and Olivia Thirlby’s refreshing presence being too limited for the film’s own good. It’s because of the ensemble and a strong first half that The Stanford Prison Experiment actually works pretty well though, even though its back half (and a sense of minor self-importance from documenting this kind of subject) is too long and sloggy, hindering it from being as good as it should be.
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez; written by Tim Talbot; starring Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Billy Crudup, Tye Sheridan, Nelsan Ellis, and Olivia Thirlby; 122 minutes.