The Stanford Prison Experiment doesn’t need gaudy production values or manipulative narrative tricks. In fact, it doesn’t want them. In his third feature, and one that will surely catapult him to greater things, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez systematically shuns almost every cinematic bells and whistle in the book in favor of a more stripped-down, barebones approach to telling a true story. His recounting of the infamous psychological ‘study’, in which two groups of college students were made to act as prisoners and prison guards, plays out as straightforward as its title would suggest. Overly linear, visually dingy and maybe even a little drawn out, it’s that same unembellished style that lends the film an obliterating sense of rawness, both aesthetically and emotionally.
What is otherwise an unassuming low-budget production is elevated immensely by the surprisingly robust roster of young male actors. In fact, the impeccable casting of this film may just be its greatest strength. Ezra Miller is given top billing as the most rebellious of the faux-prisoners who willingly allow their humanity stripped away without realizing just how psychologically damaging that could be. This is easily the best performance of Miller’s short career. Though never having to get to quite the same level of deranged as he did in We Need to Talk About Kevin, there is far more nuance to this role’s natural escalation from composed and attentive to unhinged and unpredictable.
Unfortunately, several other sterling actors are perfectly chosen but given woefully little to do. Tye Sheridan, one of the greatest teen actors working right now, has a few good scenes that are too similar to the one’s Miller owns earlier while lacking the volatile energy of Miller’s character. Two actors who have already proven their immense talents this year, It Follows‘ Keir Gilchrist and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl‘s Thomas Mann, are wasted here roles that are too little in Gilchrist’s case, and too late in Mann’s.
The biggest character sin, though, is the treatment of the experiment’s mastermind Dr. Philip Zimbardo, played here by Billy Crudup. Though Crudup is as good as ever, Zimbardo is essentially the most fascinating character of all, having the power to step in at any time but ultimately allowing his project to go way too far. Yet Zimbardo’s character is never explored in any meaningful way so that his motives — why he cares so much about the success of the experiment, what information he actually expects to get out of it, and why he is willing to watch the brutality go on for so long without interfering — are unclear. The movie simply shies away from exploring whether or not he was/is a bad guy or not, likely because the movie is based off of his own book.
Olivia Thirlby, the only female in the entire film, is thrown in haphazardly as Crudup’s love interest, a half-hearted attempt to explain Zimbardo’s eventual, all-important actions at the film’s climax. Instead, Thirlby winds up being the film’s one cliche, which sticks out like an uninspired sore thumb. At the very least, given that Zimbardo’s study takes on a life of his own independent of his prowling eyes, his lack of depth doesn’t take away from the film’s main relationships between his guinea pig students.
In a movie packed with already-established up-and-comers, there is at least still a sense of freshness to be found in Michael Angarano, who has been in many movies over the year but makes an indelible impression here as a fake-guard who finds out he enjoys his authority role a little more than he probably should. It’s Angarano’s disconcertingly giddy antics that best exemplifies the script’s odd-but-effective mix of disturbing brutality and dark, biting humor. The dialogue is packed with wit, but the comedy isn’t vapid in that it’s utilized perfectly to illustrate the different perspectives of the guards, the prisoners, and the college staff that surveys the entire experiment. Sometimes a joke is found funny by the prisoners, but not by the guards. Far more often, the guards find humor in their authority, but that sentiment is obviously not shared by the prisoners. And very rarely, something is found funny by both guards and prisoners alike, which adds another fascinating dimension to the dynamics between two groups who found themselves acting as mortal enemies based solely on a coin toss.
Given that many going into the movie will likely know how and at what point it ends, this step-by-step account of the experiment-gone-wrong relies mostly on the audience’s innate desire to see how it all plays out rather than what ends up happening. Given the film’s intentionally drab production design, with the setting confined mostly to a windowless, colorless hallway, we are carried solely on the film’s realistic escalation of tensions, rational behavior of the characters (at least of the prisoners and guards) and by believable exchanges of dialogue. Utilitarian camerawork is masterfully used to relay important visual information, but never to generate spectacle to wow audiences. In this way, Alvarez gradually strips anything that would normally ‘entertain’ audiences to put them in the perspectives of both the prisoners and guards. We lose our sense of time and place along with the characters, and though it is not surpassing when the experiment ends, we are made to feel the exact same powerful emotions they do.
Regardless of how accurate it may or may not be, the film’s unembellished look and meticulous craft puts it closer to feeling like a documentary than it has any right to, especially since a cast this good would usually be distracting in that regard. Though the film’s muted color palette and it’s exhausting, slightly drawn-out two-hour length won’t do it any favors with general audiences or even come awards season,it’s that dry, sterile approach that gives the film its startling poignancy and makes it an unforgettable real-life parable worth putting yourself through
Score: 4 out of 5