It is a bit of a shock that the Stanford prison experiment, one of the most famous psychological experiments from the 1970’s, has not received a direct adaptation until now. It has inspired films and television shows, but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’ dramatization is the first to use the actual names and experiences of those involved. The planned fourteen day experiment saw twenty-four male students chosen at random to be either guards or prisoners in a mock prison setup on Stanford’s campus. Spearheaded by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the scenario turned sour when the guards began to abuse their power, with Zimbardo egging them on despite violating the rules against physical confrontation.
Alvarez has amassed quite the cadre of young actors to play his students, led by Michael Angarano (Sky High), Tye Sheridan (Joe, The Tree of Life), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Johnny Simmons (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the original short version of Whiplash) among many, many others. Miller becomes the de facto leader of the prisoners, cheekily spurring them on to misbehave until the guards begin taking matters into their own hands with some good old fashioned psychological torture. Angarano comes to the fore here, channeling Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke (complete with Boss Godfrey’s signature aviator sunglasses) and gleefully chewing the scenery in an effective performance that toes the line with camp but never topples over into parody. The cast commits to the verisimilitude of the scenario (the script incorporated real life dialogue) with aplomb and ratchets the tension effectively as the situation grows more dire.
It is odd, then, that the film never entirely leaves second gear. It is a bit incongruous with itself, losing its momentum whenever it cuts away from the students. The other aspect of The Stanford Prison Experiment is rooted in Zimbardo’s moral dilemma and culpability when he chooses to egg on the guards instead of intervening when their attempt to control their prisoners turns physical. It is a good concept, but one Alvarez fails to adequately use to engage the audience. Without that, the scenes feel like a listless distraction from the part of the film that does generate interest. As a result, the film is a tough sit, which is understandable considering the real life nature of the subject matter, but it is a tough sit that does not sufficiently justify the difficulty of the viewing experience. The performances of the students are strong, but that alone does not provide enough to keep The Stanford Prison Experiment afloat. It perseveres as a curiosity of sorts, but easily could have been more.