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Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment

The formalism fashions effective textural shortcuts to behavioral understanding that the remarkable cast fills in with finesse.

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Photo: IFC Films

Conducted by a team of researchers led by Philip Zimbardo over a course of six days in August of 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment is a project, like Hannah Arendt’s writing on the “banality of evil,” that threatens to dispel comfortable human projections of morality and individuality. Zimbardo assembled 24 college boys for a simulation of federal prison conditions, converting a series of campus offices and hallways into a makeshift staging of a correctional facility with little personal space and no sunlight. His team then randomly assembled the students into two groups: guards and prisoners, telling the guards they were selected for their position because of inherent personal qualities that were deliberately vaguely defined, in effect flattering their egos and nurturing a sense of superiority over the people playing the prisoners. Then the volunteers began to enact the rituals of prison life, which quickly morphed into a series of psychological tortures. The “guards” harassed the “prisoners,” forcing them to perform physical exercises, punishing them for increasingly nonsensical reasons, personally demeaning them, and effectively breaking down their senses of self through the repetition of their assigned prisoner numbers. These conditions escalated at a terrifyingly rapid pace until the plug was pulled abruptly to halt what had become a real prison in microcosmic extremis. In less than a week, many “guards” and “prisoners” had internalized their new roles, some forgetting they were in a simulation.

Zimbardo’s implication, in broad terms, is that certain institutional situations might, in themselves, be inherently diseased, playing insidiously on human capacities for bending to authority in spite of perceptions of violations of common morality. Protocol, for we, a lemming of a species, might be the ultimate religion (and what is religion but merely more protocol?), and we may find that we can do anything when so justified by the sudden, simultaneously freeing, and constricting expansion of the rules of relativism. A small scene in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment is important to the meaning of both the film and the controversial endeavor it dramatizes: The “guards” and “prisoners” were sorted literally by the tossing of a quarter in some instances and they all, left to their own devices, chose to be prisoners, because they resent the law. This detail symbolically suggests a similar sorting as practiced by capitalism, classism, racism, you name it. Who are we? Merely drones playing whatever role’s assigned to us? The implications of the Stanford Prison Experiment could partially serve to contextualize the historical tolerance of atrocities, such as the genocides in Germany and Darfur, or the brutal conditions of Abu Ghraib (which Zimbardo has since studied in relation to his experience at Stanford, its imagery clearly informing this film). The Stanford experiment could even possibly elaborate on the mass population’s willingness to play into a social game of exploitation that blatantly refuses to serve them, overseen by politicians who exude a blithe contempt for their populace.

The experiment, of course, was also practicing the various manipulations it was attempting to demythologize and decry, and it has been understandably criticized for a basic failure of simulation: Its participants were partially unmoored by a confusion of reality, as they were rewarded (with authority) or punished (with lack of the same) for events that they didn’t precipitate. In a real prison, hopefully, most of the prisoners have earned their fate, or at least understand why they’re there and what the general sweep of the situation is.

In his film, Alvarez captures this collapse of basic orientation with a frightening sense of confidence. One of the great difficulties of mounting drama is portraying a rapid devolution of sanity, as one can often sense the narrative obligations carrying the characters along toward their prescribed fates. Alvarez achieves something that’s reminiscent of Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies: His formalism fashions effective textural shortcuts to behavioral understanding that his remarkable cast fills in with chilling, convincing finesse. Brook’s film used an illusion of docudramatic quotidian to muddy the contrivances of its source material’s symbolism. Alvarez goes in the opposite direction, calling attention to his stylization, which resembles a 1970s American prison movie, with their often earthy grainy cinematography and harsh naturalistic lighting that nevertheless scans as painterly. This aesthetic isn’t just a case of a filmmaker quoting movies he likes, but rather it simulates the pop-cultural associations that might’ve inspired the volunteers to immediately assume stereotypical prison roles, such as the awful hard-on of a guard, the rebellious cellmate, and so forth. In one case, these associations are especially explicit: One “guard,” Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano), imitates the voice of Strother Martin’s character from Cool Hand Luke and is soon referred to by everyone as “John Wayne” for his ruthless, unerring ability to immediately take control of the “prison.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment shrewdly omits most biographical details of the experiment. Zimbardo’s (Billy Crudup) motivations are so vaguely established as to render him a Machiavellian villain. Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbot create an experiential portrait of the torment wrought by the conditions of the experiment. Unavoidably, given this approach, the film is often an unpleasantly single-minded experience, reveling in one grotesquerie after another (it feels much longer than 122 minutes). But this ugliness also represents an act of aesthetic purity that puts you on the wavelength of the “guards” and “prisoners” alike. You feel as if you’ve spent six actual days with these people, and suspense derives, even if you’re familiar with the story, from a sense that any kind of awfulness can materialize from the stagnation that Alvarez so vividly captures. The Stanford Prison Experiment manages to evoke just a little of the existential chaos stirred by its namesake.

Cast: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby, Thomas Mann, James Wolk, Tye Sheridan, Jesse Carere, Ki Hong Lee, Keir Gilchrist, Nelsan Ellis, Johnny Simmons Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez Screenwriter: Tim Talbott Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 122 min Rating: R Year: 2015 Buy: Video

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