Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is not a documentary but a dramatization of Philip Zimbardo's August 1971 psychological study in which 24 male students were chosen from 75 volunteers ($15 a day was quite the lure back then) to serve as the guards and prisoners at a fictitious three-cell prison in the basement hallways and cleared-out offices of the university's Jordan Hall.

Coin flips decided each subject's role, though the guards were told they were selected for their superior qualities and advanced intellects. The inmates signed contracts setting forth the terms of their confinement, then were arrested and booked by actual Palo Alto cops before transfer to the "Stanford County Prison." A graduate assistant acted as the warden, and Zimbardo himself served as "superintendent." 

The contracts provided that the inmates would never be physically harmed, but as some guards wised to Zimbardo's hands-off approach ("let's let them figure it out"), they added forced workouts and baton blows to the head to the mental cruelties they inflicted on their charges. The experiment brought out the worst in them, whether in the form of outright sadism or failure to speak up and stop the abuse. Many of the indignities they come up with belie their sexual and developmental immaturity, but I love that Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbott don't movie them up. You may be more embarrassed for a guard than the inmate he orders to eat his sausages, but the stream-of-consciousness inanity of the guards' demands didn't make the prisoners chafe any less under them - and those who came in oozing nonchalance buckled first (and hardest) under the pressure.

There are many "oh come on" moments in "The Stanford Prison Experiment," times when our nervous giggles threaten to clot into camp. But this is how it went down, and Alvarez shows great daring by refusing to flinch. "Go ahead and laugh," he seems to be saying, knowing we're still wondering how we would react in this inmate's shoes, or this guard's. Whether you find Zimbardo to be evil and unethical or bold and pioneering, you can't dispute that Billy Crudup gives a magnetic performance, commanding the screen as he did fifteen years ago in "Almost Famous" and "Jesus' Son." It's been too long since I've seen such fire in an actor's eyes. Nelsan Ellis also deserves singling out as an ex-con from San Quentin whom Zimbardo hires as a consultant; he brings the quiet ferocity of the prison yard to the halls of academe.

The students are a Who's Who of young Hollywood. Ezra Miller is always going to be the most "look at me" actor in any cast, but here it suits the character of prisoner 8612, who scoffs at the cheesiness of the ersatz prison and insists on the guards' compliance with their contract, but quickly descends into terror and displacement. Michael Angarano (whom I described in my review of "The English Teacher" as "cute and low-wattage") takes a U-turn as the most villainous guard (whom the prisoners nickname "John Wayne" after his botched impression of the Captain in "Cool Hand Luke"). Listen (it's in the trailer) as he tells 8612, "You address me as Mister…Correctional Officer." A great line reading. Also on hand are Tye Sheridan of "Mud" and "Joe," whom I've called the most natural young actor working today, and James Frecheville of "Animal Kingdom" and "Adore."

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