Real Life “Stanford Prison Experiment” Becomes A Dazzling Dark Film

By Scott Kurland
Film: The Stanford Prison Experiment
Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Thirbly, Johnny Simmons, and Nelsan Ellis
Rated: R
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

      It seems, as of late, to make a really exceptional film you need to do one of two things. You either need to find an original idea like “It Follows” or “Ex Machina” and bring it to life, or you could find a real life, hard hitting story and try to bring that to life. The more intense the story, the better response it gets from an audience. “12 Years A Slave”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Boys Don’t Cry” were all true stories; yet the graphic nature of the film allowed it to really strike a nerve with people. This week’s film is the true story of Dr. Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment”. This might be the most mentally exhausting film I’ve seen since “The Dallas Buyers Club”. Let’s find out if its any good shall we?

    “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is the story of Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), a Stanford professor who conducts a psychological experiment. The experiment in question is turning an academic facilities basement into “Stanford Prison”. Next Dr. Zimbardo hires students to be guards (Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Moises Arias, Matthew Frencheville, Keir Gilchrist, and Miles Heizer). Then he gets students to be prisoners (Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Logan Miller, Chris Sheffield, and Ki Hong Lee). The experiment gets out of hand when the guards go mad with power, and the inmates start to revolt. Prisoners become abused, lose sense of time, and days become years to them. Will Dr. Zimbardo get the results he want, or has the experiment gone further off the rails than he’s anticipated?

     The writer of this film is Tim Talbott, a former writer for “South Park”. He is also known for writing “Balls Out”, one of the funniest unmade filmscripts ever to be written. So how does a guy with such a comedy driven background write a dark calculating piece like this? The answer is I don’t know. All I know is that this is a well written screenplay. The story is what makes this entire film, Talbott and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez had the difficult task of getting into the mindset of all these men. The audience never can tell what the leads are thinking, and what they do with their actions surprises us every time. That is what makes for good film making and storytelling. 

    Talbott and Alvarez have crafted a dark little film that explores some extremely complex issues. There’s a blurred line between right and wrong. The guards seem villainous and the inmates suffer for that. Which is shocking because each person was told they were hand pick to be a guard or a prisoner, but that isn't the truth. Every guard and inmate's persona and mindset was determined by the flip of a coin. That is a theme that drives the film home. We haven’t really seen that on film (with the exception of “The Shawshank Redemption”). This is a film filled with strong writing and direction and emphasized by the performances in the film.

     Writing and direction aside this is a star studded film. Most of the cast are independent film actors like Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, and Olivia Thirbly. We also get great performance from Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan. Miller is one of those actors who is either the smartest person in the room, or he’s the most clever smart ass in the room. In “Stanford Prison Experiment” he’s a combination of both. As is Tye Sheridan and all the other inmates. What I really liked about this film was a contrast in performance from the prisoners and the guards. Miller and the other inmates just want to survive. The guards just want power, and there is no guard more powerful than Angarano’s prison guard “John Wayne”.

    Angarano gives an Oscar caliber performance as “John Wayne”, a guard who has clearly seen “Cool Hand Luke” too many times. Angarano terrified me every time he was on screen. His guard had the confidence of a serial killer, and the disposition of a corrections officer. Two very dangerous mindset in one young man. I know Angarano will be snubbed Oscar season, but this is a hell of a performance.

   “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most realistic films about psychology and institutionalization I have ever seen. I really enjoyed this film, and suggest everyone check it out. However this is a very graphic film, at times it is even disturbing. So take that into consideration before going to the cinema. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a gritty character study about what we all do if given a bit of authority. The result is always abuse of said power, and “The Stanford Prison Experiment” addresses that elephant in the room flawlessly.

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