Sundance’s ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ Will Make You Question Your Own Humanity

I’m not sure if The Stanford Prison Experiment is necessarily a good movie – it’s kind of long and takes place mostly in a campus hallway – yet I found myself 100 percent engaged. This is a situation where the experiment itself, the film’s subject matter itself, is so fascinating, that it inherently makes the movie interesting. If this were not based on a true story, this movie might rate somewhere in-between “boring” and “excruciating.” But, it of course is based on a very famous true story.

It’s a story so famous that I hesitate to explain, but here goes: In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) runs an experiment on human behavior, taking seemingly normal college students and putting them in the extraordinary roles of prisoners and guards. As the movie depicts, at first, the “prisoners” didn’t take the experiment too seriously (most of the subjects requested to be prisoners because it sounded easier; their fate was decided by a coin flip) but some of the “guards” took it very seriously – which, of course, upset the prisoners. Then all hell broke loose.

It’s impossible to watch The Stanford Prison Experiment without wondering, What would I have done? I’d like to hope I’d be one of the passive guards that has a “this is dumb” look on his face, as opposed to the aggressive monsters. The closest experience I had to this was being in a fraternity in college. When it came to hazing, I have no real horror stories, but there were certain members who liked to yell a lot. They loved the power they had over new members. I participated in this once, yelling obscenities at a kid who would one day become one of my best friends (and who I spoke to just yesterday). Honestly, I kind of enjoyed the rush. I was in a position of power, and the people I was yelling at seemingly couldn’t do a thing about it. In truth, they could, but they didn’t. Just like the prisoners could leave, but after a few days, they started to believe they were in a real jail. The next morning, I felt gross about what I did and went back to watching Boy Meets World reruns to pass my time; I didn’t like knowing I had that in me.

I don’t think anyone likes thinking about what kind of person they could become under certain circumstances, which is what makes The Stanford Prison Experiment so disturbing. It’s not about them, it’s about us.


The least disturbing movie at Sundance would probable have to be the delightful People, Places, Things.. Before the film’s world premiere at Eccles Theater, director Jim Strouse gave one of the most earnest introductions I’ve ever witnessed, saying that this is the best movie he knows how to make. That could come off as smug, but it was a heartfelt statement on something that means a lot to him. And while watching People, Places, Things, I completely get where he’s coming from.

When the film opens, Will (Jemaine Clement, in his best film role to date) catches his girlfriend and the mother of their twin children (Stephanie Allynne) sleeping with another man (Michael Chernus). The film flash-forwards a year and Will is still moping about this breakup. Will teaches a class on comic book illustration, and one of his students, Kat (Jessica Williams) tries to set him up with her mother (Regina Hall). It’s a simple enough story, but it is consistently funny and everyone in the movie just seems so nice.

On Tuesday night, Sundance held a “secret screening” that turned out to be Warner Bros.’ big budget sci-fi movie, Jupiter Ascending. (I was not invited to attend.) Something about this rubbed me the wrong way – like, somehow these studio movies just aren’t getting enough attention, so now they need to try to butt in on an independent film festival? I couldn’t quite place why I felt this angst, but then I thought of Jim Strouse’s speech before he introduced People, Places, Things and how this film obviously means so much to him. And that’s what Sundance is about – to highlight passion that might not get much of a bully pulpit anywhere else. To try to cash in on these filmmakers’ moments just seems a little gross.