Tuesday, June 14, 2016
The Stanford Prison Experiment
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and written by Tim Talbott, The Stanford Prison Experiment is the story of the real life experiment created by Dr. Philip Zimbardo where students would play prisoners and guards as the experiment becomes very dangerous. The film is a dramatic account of the experiment that led to a lot of controversy with Billy Crudup playing the role of Dr. Philip Zimbardo. Also starring Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Michael Angarano, Logan Miller, Nelsan Ellis, Ki Hong Lee, Tye Sheridan, Jack Kilmer, and Nicholas Braun. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a chilling yet visceral film from Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
In the summer of 1971 at Stanford University in California, psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo decides to conduct a two-week experiment with 18 male students who would be paid $15 a day to volunteer where 9 students would play prisoners and 9 would play guards in a fictionalized prison. The objective was to study the psychological aspects of how prisoners deal with being prison and endure the abuse of the guards. What happens during the experiments is that things go too far where the students playing the guards become too comfortable with their roles while the prisoners either rebel or fall apart emotionally and psychologically. The film is about the experiment as it was considered very controversial as it showcases what Dr. Zimbardo was trying to do and how far it went where even those who are working with Dr. Zimbardo are taken aback at how far it’s gone.
Tim Talbott’s screenplay does have a unique structure where it is told in the span of days where time during this fictional prison is very slow but also confusing from the point-of-view of the prisoners. During the duration of two-weeks, prisoners would have emotional breakdowns while there are those who are willing to do what the guard says as either as a way to survive or not cause trouble. Yet, it would be observed by Dr. Zimbardo and members of his staff including a former prisoner in Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis) who also observes to see how real it is despite the fact that cells are offices and much of the action is in a hallway. Prisoners would have meetings with Dr. Zimbardo and others as if they’re being interrogated where it would eventually become too much not just for the young men playing the prisoners but also those in Dr. Zimbardo’s staff as well as Fletcher who would be forced to play a part that makes him very uncomfortable.
Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s direction is very intense in terms of what goes on in the experiment as the film is shot in a building in Los Angeles where there are very little exterior shots to play into an atmosphere that is very gripping. While there are a few exterior shots of the Stanford campus and the home of one of the volunteers pretending to be a prisoner, much of it is shot in the building where it has an intimacy that is very discomforting. Notably in the close-ups in how the guards interact and intimidate the prisoners where it feels too real at times as well as wondering when is someone going to break. The fact that much of the action takes place in this small hallway with rooms as prison cells has this air of claustrophobia in its look and feel. The scenes where Dr. Zimbardo and his staff are watching through a small TV that has a camera filming everything is just as eerie where there is more coverage in the wide and medium shots. Once the film progresses more and more as one day becomes the next, the mood definitely gets darker and more tense. Especially in a mock parole scene where Fletcher plays a parole board member who would list false charges a prisoner makes as Dr. Zimbardo’s then-girlfriend Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby) would look at what Fletcher is reading and see nothing.
Alvarez also create these moments where the prisoners try to find a way to break out but also deal with what is happening to them emotionally and mentally. The scenes where the prisoners and guards have to meet for a daily routine, the way they’re presented each day does intensify where a new prisoner would come in as he is just aghast in the experiment he’s volunteered for. Especially as what happens become terrifying as Dr. Zimbardo would be forced to watch everything as his colleagues begin to question the experiment itself. The film’s aftermath wouldn’t just showcase how troubling the experiment was but also the situations these volunteers had been put in through where it says a lot about the many complexities of human nature. Overall, Alvarez creates an unsettling yet evocative film about a man’s experiment about human behavior set in a prison.
Cinematographer Jack Shelton does excellent work with the film‘s cinematography to create different moods for much of the lighting in the cells and hallways as well as the rooms where Dr. Zimbardo and his team are watching everything. Editor Fernando Collins does brilliant work with the editing with its usage of-slow motion, jump-cuts, and other stylish cuts to play into the tension and drama that looms throughout the film. Production designer Gary Barbosa, with set decorator Sandra Skora and art director Andres Cubillan, does fantastic work with not just the look of the hallway and cells but also this cramped room known as the Hole as well as rooms that Dr. Zimbardo and his team would observe everything.
Costume designer Lisa Tomczeszyn does nice work with the costumes as much of the casual look is from clothes from the 70s while the look of the prisoners are ragged with just a long shirt and a pantyhose stocking as a cap. Sound editor Martyn Zub does terrific work with the sound as it‘s mostly low-key in how some of the sound is recorded at the Dr. Zimbardo‘s office to what it sounds naturally at the hallway. The film’s music by Andrew Hewitt is wonderful for its ambient-based score that plays into the drama as well as some of the terrifying moments in the film.
The casting by Angela Demo and Barbara J. McCarthy is great as it feature some notable small roles from Albert Malafronte as a priest, James C. Victor and Kate Butler as the parents of one of the prisoners in Peter Mitchell, and Fred Ochs as a professor who unknowingly makes an unexpected visit on the experiment. Other notable small roles include Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun, and Gaius Charles as the three associates of Dr. Zimbardo who are tasked to observe with him as they become more uncomfortable with the experiments. In the roles of some of the prison guards, the performances of Keir Gilchrist, James Wolk, Matt Bennett, James Frecheville, Mile Heizer, Callan McAuliffe, Benedict Samuel, and Harrison Thomas are superb in the roles as guys who act abusive with some becoming uneasy in what they’re doing in the experiment. In the roles of some of the prisoners, Chris Sheffield, Jack Kilmer, Brett Daverne, Jesse Carere, Logan Miller, Johnny Simmons, and Ki Hong Lee are excellent as a group of men who volunteer to play prisoners as they endure abuse and humiliation of the worst kind with some trying to find ways to survive.
Thomas Mann is fantastic in a small role as prisoner 416 who comes to the experiment late in the film as he deals with the harsh surroundings he is in as well as what he is forced to do. Nelsan Ellis is brilliant as Jesse Fletcher as a former convict who is asked by Dr. Zimbardo to observe as some of the events make him uncomfortable as he would have to confront one volunteer about his claim of being sick and another where he pretends to be a parole board figure. Olivia Thirlby is amazing as Christina Maslach as Dr. Zimbardo’s then-girlfriend who fills in for the observation where she becomes uncomfortable with what is happening. Tye Sheridan is remarkable as Peter Mitchell/prisoner 819 who tries to defy authority as he later endures some emotional and mental abuse that becomes too much for him to deal with.
Ezra Miller is marvelous as Daniel Culp/prisoner 8612 as the most rebellious prisoner who would always push the buttons of the guards only to be pushed back big time as he would try to make an escape. Michael Angarano is phenomenal as the guard Christopher Archer who would take his role too seriously as he would play a sadist as if he was John Wayne as it’s a fun yet dark performance from Angarano. Finally, there’s Billy Crudup in a remarkable performance as Dr. Philip Zimbardo as a psychological professor who is trying to create a study on human nature in a prison where he pushes things further to see how far things can go too far.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a spectacular film from Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Featuring a great ensemble cast and a fascinating study on human nature and might happen to someone in prison. It’s a film showcases a man’s experiment and how far it went as it shows some of the horror of what might happen at a prison. In the end, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a riveting and harrowing film from Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
© thevoid99 2016
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This is the third or fourth glowing review I've read about this. I need to hurry up and get on this.
I'm glad you appreciated this movie as much as I did. It is beautifully done with many outstanding performances. Interestingly, Dr. Zimbardo (still going strong in his eighties) has said this movie is accurate, even though -- in my opinion -- he doesn't come across in a positive light.
@Wendell-If you have Showtime, it's a very good chance it will come on again.
@Stephanie Marshall Ward-I think what Dr. Zimbardo did was pretty awful though it doesn't mean the story of what he was trying to do is worth ignoring.
Sadly, no Showtime for me.
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