The real-life events depicted in director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's The Stanford Prison Experiment are familiar to just about anyone who took an introductory psychology course in college. In the summer of 1971, a group of 24 male college students participating in an academic study were assigned random roles as guards or inmates in a mock prison on a nearly empty Stanford University campus. What happened over the next several days said volumes about human nature and has remained a source of controversy and debate for more than four decades.
That familiarity calls into question the need for a narrative film on the subject, especially one that recreates some scenes verbatim from original footage available on YouTube. But documentary-style context and analysis wouldn't have added much to the The Stanford Prison Experiment. Starkly told, the story still speaks for itself, and its central lesson — that people are capable of almost anything given the right set of circumstances — resonates deeply with 21st-century events, from recent incidents of police brutality to torture at Abu Ghraib. Though the film was stuck in development limbo for 12 years, its timing seems impeccable.
As The Stanford Prison Experiment begins, graduate students working with Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) interview undergrads for paid participation in a study about prison life, screening for the least troubled applicants. Once the mock prison is up and running, it doesn't take long for trouble to arise. By the second day, the "prison guards" embrace the kind of psychological cruelty of which most of us don't consider ourselves capable, and the "prisoners" passively adapt to their roles and begin to lose their real-world identities. The experiment soon reaches a level of crisis and danger that exposes serious ethical quandaries, and which actually led directly to the establishment of strict guidelines for psychological research using human subjects.
Though made with the involvement of the real (and now 82-year-old) Zimbardo, The Stanford Prison Experiment pulls no punches in its depiction of a man who is trying to examine the negative effects institutions have on the behavior of individuals, but also seems willing to participate in psychological torture for the benefit of his own career. Crudup's fine performance makes that internal tension palpable while generating suspense regarding how far Zimbardo is willing to take his explorations. An ensemble of accomplished and experienced young actors including Ezra Miller (Trainwreck) and Tye Sheridan (Mud) renders the students' psychological deterioration painfully real. That's no small task, as their story might be dismissed as implausible today if it weren't true.
With The Stanford Prison Experiment, Alvarez also manages an authentic-looking early-'70s period piece that recalls the films of that era, even though much of his story takes place in a hallway that fills in for a prison yard. Though the particulars of the story could have happened at no other time, their underlying causes remain in effect. The potential for abuse of power may be rooted in human nature and shared by all, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept.