The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgUncomfortable, unsettling, unnerving, and any other unpleasant “un” you can think of – the Stanford prison experiment was a simulation conducted in 1971 at Stanford University under the supervision of Dr. Philip Zimbardo. 24 male college students were chosen. Participants received $15 per day (equivalent to $87 in 2015). A hyper-realistic environment was established in a nondescript hallway in the basement of Jordan Hall (Stanford’s psychology building). 9 plus 3 alternates were assigned the role of prisoner while 9 others plus 3 backups were designated as guards. The ascribed parts being determined by a coin toss. No one wanted to be a guard, many determining there was more work involved. Zimbardo monitored their roleplay from another room via surveillance cameras as the superintendent. An undergraduate research assistant assumed the character of the warden. It was to run between 7 to 14 days. Zimbardo pulled the plug on the whole exercise after only 6.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez directs a skilled cast. Billy Crudup is the very real, still living, psychologist Philip Zimbardo who led the notorious experiment which studied the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or guard. He heads up an impressive cast of up and coming future stars. The production is highlighted by a flawless ensemble that demonstrates the various intricacies of how the whole enterprise devolved. The largest parts going to Ezra Miller who plays the most defiant and Michael Angarano who emerges as the most brutal. Before the venture began Zimbardo instructed the guards not to physically harm the prisoners. However he did motivate them to be controlling, to take away their individuality and to create a sense of fear and powerlessness. The participants adapted to their roles way past Zimbardo’s expectations.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a frustrating watch. The guards negatively treat the detainees in ever increasing shocking and dehumanizing ways. Initially a few prisoners resist with acts of rebellion, but more often than not they start to concede to their situation. Their passive acceptance is no less disquieting. This conduct over the course of the drama is not easy viewing. What we see is personalties change. These are not prisoners/guards. These are privileged upper-middle-class college students attending Stanford. Guards grow sadistic while prisoners become submissive. They act out the roles expected of them in a way far beyond what anyone involved with the study could have expected. The undertaking is a bit exasperating. I had many questions and concerns about how the whole operation was handled and the validity of the results. However, as a document of a notorious experiment gone wrong (or right depending on what you wanted to prove) I found it to be an arresting study in human behavior. I can’t say I enjoyed The Stanford Prison Experiment, but I did respect the craft that when into making it.


14 Responses to “The Stanford Prison Experiment”

  1. Nice choice of review, I can’t say I’ve seen the film but having studied this experiment at school I can’t say I want to.


    • It has been depcited several times on screen before. Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment (1992) was a documentary about the experiment. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel directed Das Experiment (2001). This was an adaptation of Black Box, a novel inspired by the actual study. Then came The Experiment (2010) an English-language remake starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to be able to see it at some point, and I feel like it’s one of those that may be best to go in as blindly as possible. This is so far the only review of it I’ve read. And it’s a good one.


  3. I vaguely studied the Zimbardo experiment a few years ago and remember it coming across as compelling and quite scary – I’ll need to give this film a go. Great work!


  4. Definitely going to watch this one. The trailer was fabulous. And where else do you get Olivia Thirlby and Ezra Miller under one roof ? Mark, I know this movie is disturbing, but is it worth my money. Because The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was disturbing as well but it is a fast paced thriller. So, is this movie going to be disturbing from the start to end or does it also provide a thrilling experience.


  5. I never knew about this. Can’t believe this actually took place. It was very hard to watch. I wanted to scream at the screen. “Why are you allowing this! Walk out!” “Quit!” The acting was very good or I wouldn’t have believed their performances. Liked it but couldn’t see it again. 3 stars.


  6. The cast in Stanford Prison Experiment is incredibly skilled. Crudup is excellent as the arrogant, driven Zimbardo. Although I don’t love how he’s painted as the villain of the film because I don’t think his motives were so nefarious in real life. The ensemble is a tremendous who’s who of young actors. Miller and Angarano’s performances definitely stand out. I agree that the film is a frustrating watch because of how sadistic it is and how it continues descending into chaos before the experiment’s plug is pulled. One thing that bothered me is that even though the acts of violence and oppression grow in severity, the movie still feels dramatically flat to me. Some of that may have to do with its straight-ahead no frills storytelling, and some of it may also have to do with the fact that I was pretty familiar with the experiment before watching the movie. Maybe because I knew what happened already it was less shocking? I don’t know.


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