Ask psychologists or behavioral scientists, and they’ll tell you that most ordinary people don’t set out to do unthinkably evil acts—but when they do, it’s usually due to a series of individual bad choices, each insignificant on its own but, when taken collectively, ultimately lead to disaster. This is the crucial truth some movies that try to dramatize inexplicable real-life events forget: Put any of us in the same situation and, under the right set of precise circumstances, we’d act just as monstrously.
Among the other laudable elements of The Stanford Prison Experiment, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez never, ever takes his eye off that reality, producing the rare film that explains humanity’s darkest behavior with such matter-of-fact clarity that it’s both chilling and illuminating. While watching The Stanford Prison Experiment, I was reminded of the line uttered by Max von Sydow’s dour philosopher in Hannah and Her Sisters when discussing the horrors of the Holocaust. “The reason why [intellectuals] could never answer the question ‘How could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question,” he said in the Woody Allen movie. “Given what people are, the question is: ‘Why doesn’t it happen more often?’”
Alvarez’s film is based on the famous 1971 study that took place at Stanford University, wherein subjects were divided into “prisoners” and “guards” and given two weeks to enact their roles in the basement of one of the campus buildings, which was made up to resemble a jail. Bedlam ensued, with the study’s leader, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, forced to end the experiment after only six days.
Written by Tim Talbott and based on Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect, The Stanford Prison Experiment has a calm, queasy, clinical tone, the filmmakers hewing as closely to the actual events as they can. The approach works mostly superbly, Alvarez and Talbott largely resisting the urge to editorialize about the experiment or about Zimbardo himself. Instead, the film focuses on that series of bad decisions that turned a $15-a-day study into a crucible of cruelty and bullying.
Billy Crudup stars as Zimbardo with a stripped-down naturalness which suggests the man was neither an evil genius nor a total innocent. But the movie belongs to its younger actors, who play the prisoners and guards in Zimbardo’s jail simulation. In a prescreening interview early in the film, one of the potential subjects says, when asked if he’d prefer to be a prisoner or guard, that he’d rather be a prisoner because nobody likes guards. It’s a funny line in the moment, but The Stanford Prison Experiment soon twists that comment, showing that people may hate prison guards but we as individuals would quickly take to the job if it were assigned to us—and abuse our authority with alarming speed.
At first, the relationship between the study’s prisoners (including Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan) and guards is friendly. Though they’re encouraged by Zimbardo and his associates to take the experiment seriously and to invest themselves fully in their roles, the subjects initially still understand that they’re not really in a prison. (And, besides, all the participants know that the guards are forbidden to strike the prisoners.)
But then, the experiment takes a turn when a guard named Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) begins to adopt a meaner persona—one, we suspect, is not his natural demeanor but, rather, a more enhanced version tailored to what he perceives to be his role. Archer introduces an element of vindictiveness to the proceedings, transforming the prisoners’ theoretical dehumanization—they all have numbers, not names—into a grim reality. And when the guards start exerting violence on their prisoners, Zimbardo doesn’t intervene, fascinated by what’s happening but convinced things won’t get too far out of hand. The subjects will work it out among themselves, he insists.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the 44-year-old experiment knows he was wrong, but Alvarez is less interested in the guards’ escalating hold on power as he is in the step-by-step process by which ordinary college students exerted more and more control over their fellow ordinary college students. It doesn’t happen often, but The Stanford Prison Experiment is an indie drama in which the cast’s uniform handsome whiteness pays off immensely—the actors are precise in their depictions of fear or dominance, but we never forget that, if the characters had been assigned different roles, the results would probably have been the same.
Which is not to say the performers aren’t captivating in their own right. As Alvarez did with his previous two features, Easier With Practice and C.O.G., the director turns The Stanford Prison Experiment into a showcase for good actors who have rarely had such worthy material. Nelsan Ellis, a knockout in Get On Up as Bobby Byrd, leaves an indelible impression as Zimbardo’s chief advisor, a man who knows the psychological inner workings of prison with such specificity that it’s worrisome. Miller, a revelation in We Need to Talk About Kevin—he’s also in this week’s Trainwreck—startles as Prisoner 8612, who starts off as a mild troublemaker before being goaded into becoming the jail’s most vocal rebel. The nuance of the performance is remarkable, Miller exuding a combination of feral anger, raw anxiety and bruised vulnerability. Does 8612 rebel out of principle? Or is it another kind of role, the character responding to assumptions put on him by others?
But the real eye-opener is Angarano. The young actor—he’s only 27—has been seen in films since 2000, but he’s often been trapped playing underwritten coming-of-age characters, as if Hollywood wanted to make him a sub-Shia LaBeouf. The Stanford Prison Experiment breaks him free of that straightjacket: His Archer is a playacting bogeyman who assumes a thick redneck accent while imposing his will on his helpless prisoners. We’re terrified because Angarano holds onto the character’s humanity—we recognize that his “guard” persona is merely an act, but it’s an act built from some unknown mixture of self-loathing and repressed hostility. Archer isn’t inherently evil, but he seems to have no problem abusing his power because he thinks his callousness is being sanctioned by the experiment—and, really, isn’t that scarier?
Alvarez’s three films don’t appear to have much in common: a character study (Easier With Practice), a wry portrait of small-town America taken from a David Sedaris story (C.O.G.) and now this chilly thriller. But upon reflection, what seems to unite them is the director’s interest in personal identity—how we acquire it, how it’s forced upon us and how we reconcile those two sometimes-warring forces. The Stanford Prison Experiment stutters a bit before its finale, Alvarez and Talbott underlining their points a little too strenuously, but from start to finish the film emphasizes its claustrophobic, clammy atmosphere. Crudup’s Zimbardo keeps himself at a safe distance from the experiment, but the actor’s nervous eyes hint at the turmoil and grim acknowledgment going on in the doctor’s head. We’ve all got roles to play in life—we’re just never sure how they’ll define us.
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Writers: Tim Talbott (screenplay); Philip Zimbardo (book)
Starring: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.