The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
8Dec/150

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

The task is simple.  Earn $15 / day by participating in an experiment designed to determine if personality shifts can happen by simulating a prison environment.  But is the experiment a worthwhile endeavor, or the plaything of a naïve doctor?  Kyle Patrick Alvarez directs The Stanford Prison Experiment from a screenplay written by Tim Talbott and stars Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis, Tye Sheridan and Michael Angarano.

The number gameCertain elements of American culture have become enshrined in myth.  On the patriotic front we have the story of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once-bitter rivals who both rose to the Presidency then died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with Adams murmuring, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”  Less positive and of more academic importance is the Stanford Prison Experiment, which purports to show just how the prison system of America creates tyrants and makes emotional slaves of the prisoners.

Only for those who paid close attention to the original experiment it did nothing of the sort.  Really the experiment just went to show how people who are molded and encouraged to fit a specific role will more readily accept that role regardless of the circumstances.  Whether The Stanford Prison Experiment will work for you or not may hinge on how much weight you give the original results and their subsequent enshrinement in myth.

So my problem reviewing The Stanford Prison Experiment is twofold.  If I went into this knowing nothing of the myth which has built up around the results of the experiment would I enjoy it purely on a cinematic level?  However knowing what I do know, does The Stanford Prison Experiment continue sensationalizing the myth or serve as a historical document capturing the era in a dramatic fashion?  The answer to both is no, as The Stanford Prison Experiment is a repetitive experience which confuses cinematically and continues the sort of myth enshrinement which we Americans are much to quick to do.

While it didn't work for me, the direction and acting in The Stanford Prison Experiment is top-notch.

While it didn't work for me, the direction and acting in The Stanford Prison Experiment is top-notch.

What I don’t want to do is lead you to believe this is a poorly acted or directed film.  Two of my favorite new performers, Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan, turn in strong performances as two of the prisoners who succumbed to the conditions of the prison early.  They both present very different takes on the mental breakdown associated with poor treatment as Miller succumbs to a psychotic breakdown and Sheridan hews closer to the internalized moral difficulties he’s feeling around the experiment.  Even Michael Angarano, whose work in Gentlemen Broncos and Empire State is poor, is surprisingly convincing as a person who takes to his prison guard role with gusto.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s direction keeps things moving at a brisk and intense rate.  The early scenes with the guards slowly breaking down the prisoners are a microcosm not of an oppressive prison state but of fraternity hazing.  Alvarez’s camera places the guards and prisoners in direct opposition with one another while dollying down the line as humor turns to annoyance and then fear.  Despite the confined quarters of the makeshift prison Alvarez finds ways to keep the visuals fresh by switching from the God’s eye view of the guards inflicting punishment then back to Dr. Zimbardo’s (Billy Crudup) research center which looks like the surveillance state on a tiny budget.

Recognizing the effectiveness of these elements is different from their cumulative effect in the film.  My issue would first be with Tim Talbott’s screenplay.  I’m sure someone thinks that the few moments with Nelsan Ellis, as a black man disapproving of these white boys playing pretend prison, provides sufficient criticism of Dr. Zimbardo’s actions.  The issue is these moments, much like the asides with priests and special visitors, mean nothing to the context and impact of The Stanford Prison Experiment in-movie.  All is wrapped up in a post-ending text block which fits none of the quick detours into moral introspection in the previous two hours.  Caught between printing the truth or the legend – Talbott opts for the legend.

The visual imprint of Abu Ghraib is present in The Stanford Prison Experiment but considering the structural criticism Dr. Zimbardo leveled at that horror the images lose impact considering the scenes where his project is criticized as an experiment gone wrong - an isolated incident instead of a larger issue.

The visual imprint of Abu Ghraib is present in The Stanford Prison Experiment but considering the structural criticism Dr. Zimbardo leveled at that horror the images lose impact considering the scenes where his project is criticized as an experiment gone wrong - an isolated incident instead of a larger issue.

This robs Alvarez’s direction of what momentum it carried and places some of the blame back on him for crafting the visuals leading up to that post-script.  I mentioned how effective some of the visuals are and, yes, they are well done but don’t take into consideration the moral complexity of the experiment.  Dr. Zimbardo comes across as a dictator, and Crudup’s performance seems at times to be swinging to the bleachers of evil doctors.  Olivia Thirlby has a thankless task as Christina Maslach in the film as she’s the voice of reason but the moral implications of having a romantic partner and former student involved in the project are introduced and quickly discarded in favor of more dramatic showdowns.  Considering the romantic fate of Dr. Zimbardo and Christina it makes the last shots of them in separate frames sharing a weak smile especially dishonest.

Since Alvarez follows Talbott’s lead in printing the legend the extensive sequences of abuse have less impact than if the truth or those asides had more sway in the narrative.  Instead they add to the myth, enshrining in film the idea behind the original experiment which has since been roundly refuted.  To that end the torments become a perpetual motion machine behind the narrative and stretch out Dr. Zimbardo’s final decisions in a tone-killing display of hilariously tragic overacting.  Removed of a larger context the abuse sequences serve no other purpose than to elongate the running time.

If The Stanford Prison Experiment was taking the position that these scenes did nothing but provide empty sadistic thrill for the guards and overseers then it might be worth recommending.  But Alvarez and Talbott deflate that by providing the post-script which states what these kids went through provided Dr. Zimbardo material for years to come.  That’s not the truth, and in making casual jabs at separating “the real” from “the legend” The Stanford Prison Experiment dilutes the effect of both.

Tail - The Stanford Prison ExperimentThe Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
Screenplay written by Tim Talbott.
Starring Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis, Tye Sheridan and Michael Angarano.

Posted by Andrew

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