Things came in twos at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with a pair of Cobie Smulders’ features competing against one another for the Dramatic Competition prize, a set of unexpected pregnancy comedy/dramas, Tye Sheridans (who actually was showcased in three films: Last Days in the Desert, Entertainment and this film we’re in the midst of reviewing) and, most notably, a duo of 1960-70s social psychology experiment films. One of which, The Experimenter told the story of Stanley Milgram, administer of increasing electrical shocks and student of peer pressure. The feature starred Peter Sarsgaard and was met with middling reviews.
The Stanford Prison Experiment featured no such A-list star in its telling of the infamous study of the role of the situation but, from what we’ve gathered, is the superior feature of the two – the Prestige to its Illusionist (2006), the Jurassic Park to its Carnosaur (1993), the John Wick to its Equalizer (2014)- amounting to a chilling, procedural experiment of authority and influence that toys with the variable of structural familiarity. It’s dangerously close to being great – and truly is in some scenes – but it’s true-to-life messiness doesn’t coalesce into the kind of form-fitting narrative perfection that defines stronger films.
You can train a dog to sit, shake and roll over. You should not however force a human to learn the same tricks. What takes place in The Stanford Prison Experiment is very much an exercise in teaching an old dog a new trick by way of unchecked domination. The result is a harrowing, hard-to-watch dissection of the role of power and the all-encompassing effect of the situation on the perception of those inside of it.
In 1971, 24 college-aged students were divided into two groups – prisoner and correctional officers – for a study intended to examine the seemingly unavoidable clash between military guards and their prisoners. If Tim Talbott‘s script can be believe, all participants uniformly preferred to be selected as the “prisoner” in the study. One particular rationale for such preference was: “It will probably be easier.” As The Stanford Prison Experiment unfolds, nothing could have been further off the mark.
Over the course of only the first day, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the chief psychologist in charge of the study, realizes the data is going to be much more exaggerated than he first hypothesized. From go, those selected as guards assimilate into the role with cowboyish abandon, with one exuberant guard later labeled “John Wayne” going so far as to adopt a southern lawman drawl and persona. Just as Zimbardo smirks and smiles through his mock arrest, the bogus guards find it their simulated duty to wipe that smile off as quickly as possible. Stripped of his clothes and dignity in mere minutes, they achieve their goal with unthinkable menace.
Operating under the presumption that they were selected because of their better standing as students, workers or citizens, the guards take on a hulking superiority complex, one that is exaggerated by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez‘s no-holds-barred grasp on the psychological tension of the situation. Having the consolation of the real Dr. Zimbardo gives the film further credibility, especially in the context of its least humane moments.
Treating the prisons like bonafide wrongdoers and extending so far as to physically beat them (a breach of contractual agreements), each set of guards – morning, day and night – has its own alpha male personality that takes the lead. Not to stoop to obvious parallels but Hitler Youth is written all over these psuedo-sherriffs who’ve tasked themselves with the responsibility of robbing the inmates of their most basic human privileges. The knowledge that they are indeed just peers, unluckily assigned at the flip of a coin, has all but escaped them. The extent of their malicious humiliation is enough to turn blood to ice, creating a hellish arena cloaked in uniforms and aviators well beyond what one would expect your average 18-year-old capable of.
All the authenticity The Stanford Prison Experiment brings to the table establishes an alarming, visceral sense of reality but is also accountable for a skosh of its failures. Because of its strict adherence to factual truths, some of the most intriguing characters disappear before we want them to. A minor complaint in the fact of a lofty accomplishment but one I had none the less.