Review: ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ tells honest and unflinching true-life story well

PARK CITY – So now that someone's finally told the story right, can we stop making films about this event?

Of course, the reason to tell this story again is because it's still not something that everyone knows about, and it's a hell of a story. Up till now, though, any time anyone has tried to capture it on film, they've done so in a dishonest way. I've seen both the German “Das Experiment” and the American remake, “The Experiment,” and in both of them, things are heightened to the point of absurdity.

What screenwriter Tim Talbott did here is impressive precisely because he didn't lean on that sort of super-charged melodrama. Using real transcripts, and with the involvement of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who was the psychologist who designed the project in the first place, Talbott and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez have opted to aim for something authentic and honest.

The film opens with a small want ad being typed, typeset, and printed, and then jumps directly into interviews. It's obvious right away that this isn't going to be a film where they crank things up for the sake of drama. Instead, it is precisely because everything is so mundane that the film is effective. It's easy to react when the filmmaker ladles on indicators for you. A pumped up score, moody photography, on-the-nose production design… these things can make it clear that you're supposed to be scared or upset. This film is almost completely free of those kinds of indicators, though, and it leaves you free to have your own moral and emotional reaction to what you're watching.

For those of you not familiar with the true story, it takes place in August of 1971. Philip Zimbardo set up a simulated prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. He accepted 24 male students into the study, then divided them so half of them become guards, and half of them became prisoners. They were supposed to spend two full weeks on the project, but had to pull the plug after only six days. Why? Well, that's what this film attempts to articulate, and it does a very good, very even-handed job of exploring what happened.

The film is careful to show just how the experiment unraveled, and it does not let anyone off the hook. There was no single choice, no single participant, no single moment where everything went off the rails. Instead, from the moment they began, there was a power struggle driving everything, and it became clear that the students were playing their roles completely, which pushed several of them to places they were not prepared for. The film shows how quickly Zimbardo lost control of things, and how his own participation skewed results and undermined any real academic value the study might have.

You might think that Zimbardo being a consultant on the film means that they are turning him into a hero, but Billy Crudup does fantastic work here as a smart guy whose best intentions begin to spin out of control, leaving him frantic to make things work again. The film does not try to justify the mistakes that were made, choosing instead merely to show them, and to illustrate just how easily Zimbardo lost the control he thought he had.

The large ensemble cast here all does exemplary work. Michael Angarano plays one of the guards who decides on the first day to play his part as Strother Martin from “Cool Hand Luke,” earning himself the nickname “John Wayne” in the process. Ezra Miller plays a student who is given the prisoner number 8612, and his defiance is part of what accelerates things. Tye Sheridan, Moises Arias, Johnny Simmons, Thomas Mann, and Chris Sheffield, among others, all slip nicely into their assigned roles, and it's impressive to see just how carefully the cast navigates this very tricky material, and just how faithfully they all work to get every detail right. Nelsan Ellis, best known as Lafeyette on “True Blood,” is particularly effective as a former prisoner of San Quentin who is brought in to make sure they get the prison experience right, and his evolution over the course of the film is one of the clearest human yardsticks for just how far from right things get.

There is something chilling about the way people accepted their roles during the experiment, and because Alvarez doesn't push you to a specific heavy-handed reaction, the film doesn't feel like it's taking a position on what happened. The matter-of-fact tone, the small character details… it's observational, not editorial. The filmmakers trust the audience to have their own reaction, and it's very effective stuff. The score by Andrew Hewitt, the photography by Jas Shelton, the spot-on perfect production design by Gary Barbosa, all working together in the pursuit of something that comes as close as possible to actually showing us the experiment in progress. Considering how I felt like I was already done with the story before I sat down, it was a great surprise to see something so carefully and intelligently built, and I suspect this will rattle many moviegoers once it's picked up for distribution. Alvarez and Talbott deserve major phrase for finding the right tone and for playing things honest, and their approach pays off in something that will illuminate this story for audiences. It's a difficult sit, but it leaves you with so many ideas to digest, so many moments to consider. Why tell the story one more time?

As I said at the top of this piece… they did it to finally get it right, and they more than accomplished that lofty goal.

Here's hoping someone picks up “The Stanford Prison Experiment” sooner rather than later, because this deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.