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Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment (Sundance 2015)

The Stanford Prison Experiment (Sundance 2015)
01.31.2015
8 10

PLOT: In the summer of 1971, Stanford psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) recruits students to participate in a study simulating prison conditions. The role of guard and prisoner are assigned randomly. It doesn't take long for the experiment to spiral out of control.

REVIEW: THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is a notorious real-life experiment, which has been the basis already for several films, including the German DAS EXPERIMENT and its (bad) American remake, THE EXPERIMENT. Yet, while those films used the experiment as a touchstone, allowing the story to take on more aspects of a thriller, Kyle Patrick Alvarez's film is less concerned with thriller elements, but rather the loss of individuality the participants experienced, and how quickly the guards began to abuse the prisoners, most of whom quickly bent to authority.

It's actually an interesting contrast to EXPERIMENTER, which I saw earlier this week at Sundance, which took a look at the similar Milgram experiment, only to be bogged down by some really bizarre, showy, stylistic techniques. STANFORD is much more assured stylistically. Adopting a straightforward, fly-on-the-wall perspective, Alvarez's film strikes me as the kind of thing that could easily become a breakout arthouse success. Granted, the story is bleak, but it reveals a fundamental truth about the human experience, in that we truly don't know how we'll fare under extreme conditions, with it easy to look at the sadistic guards and complacent prisoners with disgust, but more so for the reason that put in their shoes we might react the same way.

It's incredible how much of a leap in quality this is compared to Alvarez's last film, COG. While that was a cute road movie, STANFORD is heavy-duty, almost Fincher-esque film-making. The young cast is absolutely superb, with Alvarez cannily allowing us to relate to one prisoner only to totally shift perspectives or sideline the person we think is going to be the hero. Early on, it seems like future FLASH Ezra Miller is our hero, with him rebelliously attacking the guards' authority every chance he gets. The same goes for Sundance “it” guy Tye Sheridan, who – like Miller – feels like the kind of rugged individual who's going to be our hero.

All of the performances are excellent, including Crudup as the ambiguous Zimbardo, who it could be argued lets things go too far too fast, even if it can't be denied that his experiment quickly proves itself to be a resounding success. Nelsan Ellis, as a former San Quentin inmate brought-on-board as a kind of adviser also has several impressive scenes reflecting his growing self-loathing, with him quickly realizing that he's enabling sadistic students to wield authority in a dangerous way. STANFORD's most chilling performance belongs to Michael Angarano, who seems to relish his new role, adopting Strother Martin's COOL HAND LUKE southern accent, immediately establishing his dominance over the guards and inmates in a chilling way.

Obviously, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT isn't an easy film to watch, in that it's certainly not the kind of thing that's going to reaffirm your faith in humanity. But, it is a fascinating, totally engaging watch which may well make a big splash if the right distributor picks it up.

Source: JoBlo.com

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