I have been waiting for this one for a while. The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of those interesting cases in American History that should make all of us thankful that the Experiment Review Boards now exists. For those of you who are not aware of what the Experiment was all about allow me to enlighten you. The Stanford Prison Experiment was an experiment ran by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. The idea behind the experiment was to test how people put into a prison environment may act differently then they would in normal society. The test was supposed to take two weeks, but had to be concluded after only six days when the students became so immersed in their roles that the guards were physically and psychologically abusing the inmates. Several students quit ahead of time and the test has gone on to achieve some level of infamy, for its intended purpose, shed light on the psychological experiments that ran wild in the 1970’s, and was brought up again during the Abu Ghraib incident during the Iraqi War.
So seeing has this movie came out, the fact of the matter is that it will be difficult to make a movie on such a strange subject without it dipping into the realms of the sleazy. While this movie does not dip deep into the realms of historical exploitation, it is still not an easy sit through and its purpose is more of showing a toned down torture porn for those who enjoy such movies to consume.
The story begins at the interview process for the initial experiment. The people who sign up for the experiment are to be paid $15 a day in order to take part in the experiment. The group is seperated into two groups, the prisoners and the guards. Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Curdip) and his team of graduate students, a former inmate, and his wife monitor the test and watch as the guards and the prisoners quickly adopt their roles in the prison. The guards become abusive to the prisoners and the prisoners slowly feel their humanity slip away and replaced with little more than a number. The movie tells the story of all involved in the experiment as, even those administering the test.
Across the board, everyone in this cast from main characters to tertiary characters gives a fantastic performance. You do have your big stars like Billy Curdip who is amazing as Philip Zimbardo. But along with that is Nelsan Ellis of True Blood fame, and it is honestly just nice to see him out there and getting work after the HBO vampire franchise went belly up. They are excellent in their roles, in particular Curdip who you can watch as he slowly loses himself to the experiment and becomes more of a prisoner supervisor then a person running an experiment.
But out of the entire cast, the two that truly steal the show is Erza Miller and Michael Angarano who play Prisoner 8612 and the “John Wayne” guard respectfully. The two are meant to be the two sides of the same coin and the movie even uses a coin flip as a symbolic link between them. Prisoner 8612 and John Wayne are representatives of the two extremes. Two people who could be prone to violence, one being put into a prison environment and the other being put in charge of the prison. Both men play off their characters so well as they lose themselves to the experiment and as they are released, you can see the two almost shift from the personality they create for themselves in the experiment to their regular selves. One of the most haunting moments of the film is when the Warden is on the verge of sexually abusing the inmates and the second Zimbardo enters and tells them the experiment is over, Warden Wayne immediately snaps out of the facade and simply says: ‘So are we going to get paid for the full two weeks?’ This mixed in with shots of the inmates crying with relief that it is all over, is absolutely chilling and amazing imagery.
Shows the Gruesome Nature of the Experiment
For anyone who knows of the Stanford Prison Experiment, there is something of a disconnect from hearing and witnessing. You can be told all day what it was, what it did, and how it was accomplished… But you still do not have the right frame of mind by viewing it for yourself. The movie does an excellent job of bringing out emotions, no matter how bad those emotions might be (and we will get to that soon.) Each seen is absolutely dripping with suspense and the crushing weight that these kids are feeling.
Whether or not it is painful to watch is beside the fact that director Kyle Patrick Alvarez knows how to create a scene that is filled with atmosphere and suspense.
It Isn’t an Easy Watch
Those who may have triggers that involve torture or abuse should probably skip this one. It is not an easy watch to see the brutality that these people quickly devolve into. Luckily the brutality is left blood free, but it can still get pretty rough. The movie does a good job of making you feel like the fly on the wall, watching this experiment go by, yet helpless to do anything about it. It forces you to not only want to help these kids, but to also look inward and wonder what you would do if you were put into that kind of situation.
I leave this as a ‘meh’ because I am not sure on whether or not to classify it as a pro or a con. On the pro side, it elicits the the emotion that it was intended to elicit. It is supposed to make you uncomfortable as you watch these horrible things happen to these guys. On the negative side, it is so shocking that you may want to turn off the movie and thus the opposite of what any director wants you to do. I suppose I can chalk this up to leaning more towards the negative since the director did not find that right ‘I’m shocked, but I cannot look away.’ However, it was very effective so I classify it as something worth noting, but not falling into either category.
It is on the Verge of Exploitation
When you make a movie like this, you always have to ask why am I making this movie and who is my target audience? The Stanford Prison Experiment seems to want to make a movie that has all the weight and gravitas of an Oscar Bait or film festival type of movie, but with all the violence and torture exploitation that brings in the crowds you would see at a 42nd Street type of movie. When you mix these two worlds, you get an interesting movie that is teetering on the edge of torture exploitation.
Not only is this film hard to watch, has a difficult replay value that movies like Foxcatcher tend to create, and it is a movie that is about an experiment in which people were basically tortured for six days straight makes me wonder if the directors got their target audience mixed up.
This is a minor nitpick, but when you have the torture porn element mixed in with Oscar bait, it leaves the film looking like a mismatched mess when it comes to presentation and this is where The Stanford Prison Experiment hits its biggest flaw. Its presentation is all over the place which makes an audience for the film a difficult one to pin point.
This movie is worth the watch. It is historically accurate and a chilling account of the experiment that happened in 1971. The movie is, more than likely, going to be a one time watch and call it a day. I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie is nominated for a few Academy Awards. It has the talent to at least make the ballot before losing out to more dramatic films.
Final Score 4/5
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