Monday, July 13, 2015


Reviewed by Dwight Casimere

What happens when you give someone a uniform and a weapon and give them unbridled authority over a group of men and those men, in turn, are subject to   their insults and humiliation due to imprisonment? That's pretty much the question posed by the state of the U.S. penal system and the crux of the film "The Stanford Prison Experiment"

Directed masterfully by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Easier With Practice, C.O.G.) the film is an almost clinically precise adaptation (by script writer Tim Talbott  of Dr. Philip Zambardo's 2007 book, "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Become Evil,'  which documents his controversial 1971 study of the psychological impact of power on those who are suddenly given absolute authority over others. The results, as depicted in the study and the movie, are chilling and horrifying.

The film begins inauspiciously enough, with Dr. Zimbardo, played with headlong arrogance by Billy Crudup, interviewing a series of unsuspecting Stanford University students for his scientific project. To be conducted over the summer break in the vacant offices of the administration building and Justin Hall, which are turned into the warden's office, which doubles as the study's command center, where the proceedings are observed through hidden cameras, and a makeshift jail, constructed in a stifling, airless hallway and empty classrooms turned into makeshift holding cells. The students have no idea what they're in for. All their interested in is the carrot Zimbardo and his team hold out; a $15 an hour stipend to interrupt their carefree summer for two weeks for the good of modern science. 

When asked whether they'd like to play a prison guard or an inmate, almost to a person, each one, in this post-Vietnam and Civil Rights protest era, opts to be a prisoner. A flip of a coin helps Zimbardo and his staff separate the guards from the prisoners. 

Suited up with uniforms, a nightstick and a pair of sunglasses, which allows them to hide behind a wall of anonymity, the guard's are given their marching orders. The students, as inmates, are stripped of their identity and are addressed only by number. No prisoner is allowed to speak, they must eat meals at precise times and address the guards at all times as "Mr. Correctional Officer." No one is allowed to physically assault anyone, but that proviso quickly goes out the window as the guard's become increasingly intoxicated with their newly gained power of authority and the 'prisoners' become increasingly rebellious and aggresively defensive. The most rebellious are No. 8612 (Ezra Miller) and No. 819 (Tye Sheridan) who become the masterminds of a failed escape and are, by turns, locked up in isolation in a storage room that has become 'the hole.'

Sound and production design by Gary Barosa and the haunting score by Andrew Hewitt, served to emphasize the mounting tension and increasing danger. The sounds of guards banging their nightsticks against walls and bars are echoed in Hewitt's score, which becomes more ominous as the film progresses.  Jas Shelton's excellent cinematography frames the interactions between the 'guards' and inmates' in wide-angled shots, so that we see their actions and reactions simultaneously. It's as if we're watching the action unfold under a microscope. It's impossible to avert your attention even though the film becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch.

In the actual experiment, Jesse Fletcher, a consultant who spent 17 years in San Quentin, played commandingly by Nelson Ellis of the James Brown  topic "Get On Up," is brought in as a reality check. 

As it becomes apparent that  the wheels are starting to come off the whole proceeding, even he has to take a dive for the exit door. As he observes, its shocking how quickly the students, who are from privileged backgrounds, have so quickly devolved into sub-humans, far outpacing his experiences in the real prison world.

Dr. Zimbardo is undeterred, even ignoring the device of his student-turned lover and assistant Christina Masiach, played brilliantly by Olivia Thereby, who warns that his career will be ruined by parent lawsuits if he continues with his headlong experiment. So consumed is Dr. Zimbardo in his own pride that he is reluctant to turn the ship around, even in the face of collision with a barrier reef.

When the abuse by guards becomes increasingly humiliating, finally resulting into an orgy of simulated anal sex, Zimbardo is forced to call a halt 
to the project, less than a week in.

Closing credits laud Dr. Zimbardo as a pioneer in the research that led to the modern movement toward prison reform. That may owe more to his involvement as a consultant to the film than the truth of events subsequent to his study, some 40 plus years ago. The Stanford Prison Project leaves a bad taste in your mouth and a troubling reality; unbridled authority, even in the hands of those we deem as 'civilized' can quickly get out of control. Given the right set of circumstances, any one of us could be come an abuser or a victim. How that conundrum is addressed is up to each of us to decide and monitor in society.

Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Starring Billy Crudup, Ezr Miller, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Thirlby, Nelson Ellis 
2 hours, 2 minutes
In English
Opens in theaters July 17

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