The Stanford Prison Experiment Review

“The premise was gripping, and according to everything I’ve read on the subject it was pretty close to reality.”

Last night, on the request of a friend of mine, I watched The Stanford Prison Experiment and it was pretty fucked up. For those who don’t know, The Stanford Prison Experiment is based on a real psychological experiment that was done in the 70’s wherein numerous college students volunteered to be a part of a ‘prison simulation’. At the flip of a coin the group was split in two, one half prisoners and one half guards, and a fake prison created in a hallway of the basement of Stanford University. Things go off the rails pretty quickly as subjects lose track of time, and their sanity.

Now although The Stanford Prison Experiment is based on a real life incident, it is still a movie. It probably embellished one or two things to create a better narrative for the audience, but I’m going to proceed with this review taking everything the movie said as a fact (just for the sake of writing). First of all, I absolutely loved the premise of both the movie and the experiment itself. I’m a huge fan of Lord of the Flies, and this was exactly the same premise but even more sadistic because these guys volunteered to be a part of it. I though that it was very interesting in the movie to see how the experiment took its toll on the test subjects, but also the people running the experiment. It added a kind of metanarrative aspect to the movie when you see that, much like the guards in his fake prison, Dr. Philip Zimbardo is also really enjoying his new found power. The one thing I didn’t like about how the story was portrayed in the movie is the fake ‘docu-drama’ ending that had all of the actors, still in character, talk about their experiences in the experiment. I felt that this took me out of the movie right at the end, and it took away a lot of the impact that the movie had and made it feel disingenuous. If they had used actual footage of the real people that would have been great, but instead they decided to create this weird fake documentary despite the rest of the movie being traditional in presentation.

The one thing that made The Stanford Prison Experiment really stand out to me were the performances. It seemed like almost every face was recognizable to some degree, and each one of them had their moment to shine. The standouts in my opinion had to be Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Billy Crudup, and Michael Angarano. These four absolutely nailed their respective roles, and really brought a lot of depth into the film. As prisoners, Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan each did an amazing job of conveying the mental toll that this experiment took on those involved.  The subtle and not-so-subtle emotional outbursts and reactions really painted a realistic picture of anguish and frustration, leading to what could really only be described as a mental breakdown. On the flip-side you have Michael Angarano who did an amazing job as one of the ‘prison’ guards. Almost immediately you can tell that his character is having too much fun with his new power, and it really helps paint the picture of what the experiment was (I think, at least) going for in the first place. And then you have Billy Crudup who played Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the man who orchestrated this sadistic experiment and exhibited a lot of the same traits as the prison guards. It was legitimately interesting seeing the impact the experiment had on not only the people being tested, but also Dr. Zimbardo himself; and of course this was all becasue of Crudup’s performance. If I had to identify one thing I disliked about the movie, aside from the weird docu-drama ending, it would be the sound mixing. While the score for the film was fitting and actually quite good, it was consistently too loud for everything else. I could barely hear the dialogue at times becasue I was being assaulted with intense string music.

Overall The Stanford Prison Experiment was a very interesting watch. The premise was gripping, and according to everything I’ve read on the subject it was pretty close to reality.

I give The Stanford Prison Experiment an A

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