Based on a true story of an experiment executed by Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his team, a group of college kids volunteered themselves for a two-week project to remove themselves from civilization and play the one of two roles. Half played prisoners while the other half played the guards who controlled and watched them in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. This was a study to analyze and collect data on the human psyche and find out how people deal with power whether given to them or taken away.
The study took on a life of its own not only on the participants but on the doctors and team behind the scenes.
The study only lasted six days.
This film is not to be confused with the German movie Das Experiment (2001) and the US version of the original called The Experiment (2010 Forest Whitaker, Adrien Brody). While those two movies are of the same experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment is the same concept but different results. I have seen both version and I find The Stanford Prison Experiment to be very impressive.
The cast they have chosen were very great choices for the film. Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, and the late Nelsan Ellis are among the all-star cast of up and coming actors. As we hear a little back story to each person volunteering for the experiment you learn a little bit about them in their body language and how they answer study questions to determine if they are perfect for the project. Each of them comes with a bit of desperation, eagerness, and a bit of worry. I think that by not diving too much into their back story we are left with an unpredictable situation where the audience doesn’t know or can determine easily how far they are going to embody the role they are given.
Right from the start of the experiment, the guards feel that they immediately have to show who is boss by stripping everyone naked and making them put on gowns that look like a cotton potato sack but are identified as dresses to remove their masculinity and identity to nothing but their prison number. Guards are given a unified uniform and split between the day shift and the night shift guards. Equipped with a baton for the visual look for authority, the study has a rule that there is no physical harm to anyone prisoner or guard.
You start to see the study take its course when the lines of reality are blurred once some of the participants start to feel like they are in a real prison. The guards start to embrace their new-found power and demonstrate behavior they had no idea they were capable of. While some still treated it as an experiment they tested the waters by fighting back and having a little fun but quickly learned that the scenario they accepted is the “real” deal and that they will have to play by the rules if they want to get through the next two weeks smoothly and without psychological damage.
The study could have been a smooth minimal experience but none of the kids really knows what it’s like to be in prison or how someone with power or without it should act and also how they should deal with the removal of free will. So, you get to see their interpretation of what is needed to show that you have authority and how to keep it. From the prisoner’s point of view, you get to see how someone handles not being able to be in control. Something that most people take for granted in their everyday lives.
Watching the doctors conducting the study from behind the scenes played a small role in making this situation more believable as a warden and committee for a parole board, they watch with cameras and witness every move made and even when the line has been crossed and there is violence brought into the study, they decide to let them handle it and see if they can overcome the lust for power and control that has been granted to them. Everything from verbal abuse, isolation, degrading, dehumanizing, physical abuse, and starvation are all exhibited here in this study that was terminated earlier than expected due to the mental state of some of the volunteers and the hunger for playing God in a way. Everyone involved witnessing the horror of the way things are being carried out are apparent and yet no one does anything about it. No one stands up to the other to set things right which speaks more on how people need to feel like they belong or just afraid to rock the boat and do the right thing in fear of rejection.
Ezra Miller’s performance stands out as he is the jokester and loudest of the prisoners who challenges the rules and quickly escalates the situation to negative ways. His performance could be described as over the top and embellished compared to the tame and somber performances of his fellow inmates. Michael Angarano plays sort of the head guard among the rest as he completely changes his persona into this character from a John Wayne villain to the point of being afraid to cross him. His performance can be seen as realistic to some people who let power get to their head. Once you find out his reasoning for taking on such a character, you will have a choice to choose to hate him or find him smart and creative.
I see this movie as a good conversation starter. This has lots of evidence to explore and discuss exactly how survival instincts kick in and take over to feel as if you still have a say in how your life turns out. The conditions that inmates are in when they are in prison is showcased in this movie and that reality speaks out throughout this movie. When you watch the ending to this film and hear testimonies from the people who participated you will be surprised how everyone dealt with the role given to them and how it can change someone to someone they completely don’t recognize. I do recommend this movie and also recommend the other titles on the same plot to look at to compare and contrast.
4 out of 5