A famous 1971 psychological study is the subject of The Stanford Prison Experiment, a compelling drama from Kyle Patrick Alvarez featuring a young ensemble cast. Review by Alan Laidlaw
There’s something of an intersection between the objectives of a film and a psychological experiment: Both, by their very nature, tease out of us a curiosity to receive satisfying conclusions and, ultimately, through fastidious study of a subject over a set period of time, force us to ask the question – was this a success?
Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment focuses on the 1971 psychological study of the same name, which took 24 males – all of whom studied at Stanford University – and split them into two groups, designating half of them to act as guards, and half of them to act as inmates in a simulation of a prison environment.
Although generally thought of as a failure, the experiment flagged up certain troubling observations about how we adapt to certain changes in situation and power dynamics. By focusing in on the grey area between the failure and success of the experiment, the film cleverly draws us into its action as we’re shown the alarming changes in behaviour of the seemingly normal students.
There’s something horrifying in witnessing a group of intelligent, laid-back middle-class students transform into a microcosm of prison life, all in the space of a few short days. It doesn’t take long before the playful acting out of their allocated roles turns into a deeper struggle for power, with those stripped of it beginning to rise up against the guards who waste little time in abusing what power is granted to them.
The young ensemble cast is a revelation: there are two stand-out performances in particular, with Ezra Miller playing the rebellious inmate and Michael Angarano as the brilliantly loathsome prison guard who’s given the nickname John Wayne for his gun-slinging attitude and self aggrandising demeanour. Both actors dive head-first into their characters and give off an effortless sense of presence and charisma.
This is the fourth film to use the experiment as a subject, and you can’t help but sense the director’s need to make his particular version the defining one. You can feel, in the intense reiteration of themes, a desire to squeeze out the essence of the study and to root out its ultimate significance. This is a desire that is never quite fulfilled, but Alvarez can take consolation in the fact that his effort will be regarded as the film about the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Never once does it lose its audience in its two hours on screen, achieving the impressive feat of being relentlessly entertaining whilst managing to continuously engage on a level that stays true to the experiment itself. It incites us not only to ask the question of whether the study was a success, but how we ourselves would act if we were in their shoes.
As the study and film both suggest: the variable lies not in the personality of the individual, but the position of power that – by random selection – they are given.