Sunday 7 May 2023

Movie Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

Genre: Psychological Drama
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Starring: Billy Crudup, Olivia Thirlby, Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan
Running Time: 122 minutes

Synopsis: In 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) recruits male student volunteers for a 2-week experiment. Some students are designated as prisoners, while others are assigned the role of guards, with an empty university building wing used as the mock prison. Within hours, guards including "John Wayne" (Michael Angarano) start to deploy psychological pressure and the threat of physical brutality, pushing Prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller) among others to the breaking point. Zimbardo starts to lose perspective, alarming his psychologist girlfriend Christina (Olivia Thirlby).

What Works Well: Based on actual events, this is a stark and often harrowing exploration of human susceptibility. Guards succumb to power trips, prisoners take refuge in fight-or-cower self-preservation, and Zimbardo embraces illusions of grandeur. At the core are students who signed up for an easy $15/day, now trapped in a psychological and physical nightmare. The minimalist sets, mostly confined to administratively-coloured hallways, add to the surreal sense of detachment from reality.

What Does Not Work As Well: Zimbardo's background and his research objectives are glossed over, leaving the experiment unanchored. The prisoners and guards are never humanized outside the experiment, robbing them of transformation arcs, while Tim Talbott's screenplay is ultimately unbalanced, pulling hard towards outrage unsupported by the postscript.

Conclusion: An essential but still difficult-to-watch exposition of psychological frailties.

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