The Stanford Prison Experiment Dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: psychodrama, prison movie
Others: Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Lucifer Effect (book), Kitty Genovese (murder)

The Stanford prison experiment is one of the most infamous examples of psychological control in modern times. But in this dramatized account of the experiment, one of the most damning instances of control comes from outside of the prison/experimental setting. Billy Crudup stars as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford professor heading up the research. He’s written as a sort of contemporary progressive mad scientist, but the portrayal is grounded in reality and subtlety. (The entire film seems dedicated to providing an accurate reproduction of the actual events that transpired). And as the film progresses, Zimbardo’s experiment becomes an obsession, overcoming his powers of reasoning and good.

A quick primer for those who didn’t take Psychology 101 regarding the Stanford prison experiment: in 1971, Zimbardo conducted a study in which 24 male subjects were randomly selected to be either a prisoner or a guard in a mock prison setup in the basement of Jordan Hall, Stanford’s psychology building. The experiment was set to last two weeks, but it was cut short after only six days due to repeated psychological abuse of the prisoners by the guards. Given the subject matter, and the familiar, archetypal arc of a man (briefly) losing his sanity and humanity in the name of science, it’s actually surprising there hasn’t been a dramatized version of this incident before.

So then, to the aforementioned moment: Zimbardo has just wrapped up “visiting hours,” in which he allowed his prisoners to receive actual visitors. He is confronted by one of his subject’s parents, distressed at their son’s appearance and deteriorated mental state. Zimbardo, unwilling to risk his experiment at this juncture, attacks the parents’ pride, like a comic book villain using hypnosis. “Your son seems to be a pretty tough kid; do you think he can handle it?” he asks them. By turning their concern against them and making them seem weak, he is able to control them. Wanting to show their son’s strength through their own actions, they abandon their concern and wish “Mister” Zimbardo a good night. In a final jab that confirms his authority and their subservience, Zimbardo corrects the parents — “Doctor.”

The film also engages questions of simulation versus testing, the lack of an independent variable present, and the potentially clandestine nature of the entire experiment. But none of these elements would matter if the filmmakers couldn’t use them to make a captivating film. A great example of director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s command of tone and tension comes in one of the final scenes in which the guard nicknamed “John Wayne” (Michael Angarano) torments an obedient, soft-spoken prisoner until he breaks. The prisoner objects to the use of profanity, and John Wayne eventually forces him to utter the word “bastard.” The scene repeatedly uses closeups, sometimes even crowding two characters’ faces into the frame, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the experiment and this incident in particular. The prisoners are so powerless they can’t even escape the frame.

A dramatized and filmed version of the Stanford prison experiment raises some interesting psychological points. Filming a movie is itself a type of controlled experiment, in which the chaos of reality is filtered and funneled into an often predetermined outcome. The actors portraying the prisoners and the guards are essentially playing the same roles as the students in 1971, but with one more step removed. But just how removed is that step? What makes actors able to inhabit these roles without losing their compassion? In any case, for now, I’m content with this strong adaptation of an important psychological study.

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