"Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks..." As depicted in the docudramatic film The Stanford Prison Experiment, 75 students responded to this ad in the summer of 1971, and 24 were selected by Stanford University's Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his graduate staff, who randomly divided them into guards and prisoners. It’s perhaps needless to say that things escalated quickly in the makeshift basement prison, although Zimbardo maintains that he did not anticipate his results.
As scripted by Tim Talbott and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G.), The Stanford Prison Experiment derives from Zimbardo’s 2007 account The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil and original transcript records from the study. Talbott and Alvarez hew closely to the widely dispersed facts of the experiment, while finding the most dramatic wiggle room backstage with Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), his support crew (including Nelsan Ellis as a consultant with prison experience and Olivia Thirlby as Zimbardo’s skeptical former-student-turned-girlfriend), their psychological debates, and the dubious ethics that lead them to realize they’ve become subjects in their own experiment.
Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan make especially strong impressions as “prisoners” on the edge of a nervous breakdown (the former is well-cast as a troublemaker and the latter as his more passive follower) but they’re merely the most prominent in a cast made up of much of the top talent of their generation: Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Lee Ki Hong, Johnny Simmons, Chris Sheffield, and Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto), among others. On the prisoner side, Nicholas Braun, Moises Arias, Keir Gilchrist, and standout Michael Angarano demonstrate the range of comfort and skill the guards have in exerting control over their charges.
Angarano’s character takes to the theatricality of the experiment, relishing his opportunity to emulate Strother Martin’s prison-camp boss from Cool Hand Luke and seemingly losing himself in the role as much as some of the prisoners do. Tippett’s script and Alvarez’s finely-tuned observance of the actor’s expressions and gestures lay out the most important incidents while acknowledging gray areas: yes, some of the guards got their inch and took a mile, showing how easily and energetically authority can be abused, but others seem disgusted even as they fail to stop the abuse. In a no-win situation, some of the prisoners prove more resilient than others at maintaining identity and a sense of righteousness.
People have debated the worth and significance of the study ever since it began, though it’s clear in hindsight, even to Zimbardo, that the experiment was allowed to go too far—the film provides a disturbing dramatic account and an opportunity to reflect on both the wrongheadedness of the study and the fascination it continues to yield. Crudup plays notes that capture the zealousness of a dangerously ambitious, sleep-deprived true believer in his own study, though Crudup and Alvarez may err on the side of mad scientist in a portrayal that's never quite as naturalistic as those of the students. The screen Zimbardo insists he’s “trying to understand how an institution affects an individual’s behavior.” Alvarez’s own dark study, empowered by potent acting, allows the audience to contemplate the many variations on that psychological dynamic and what they may say about human nature.