In 1971 Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), a psychology professor at Stanford University, selects eighteen male students to participate in a unique experiment to last fourteen days. Its purpose is to test Zimbardo's hypothesis that social situations, rather than individual personality traits, determine people's behaviour. The experiment sees half of the volunteers assume the role of prisoners, confined to a mock prison situated in a basement on campus, while the other half portray guards. Yet, only hours into the simulation, the 'guards' start abusing and humiliating their prisoners, some of whom suffer psychological breakdowns. All the while Zimbardo lets the situation escalate, seemingly unwilling to acknowledge his own grim fascination with the results is taking a horrific psychological toll on the students.
The Stanford Prison Experiment paradoxically runs the risk of seeming derivative of itself given it dramatizes the real life incident that inspired several fictional treatments. Among them the German productions Das Experiment (2001) - later remade as The Experiment (2010) - and Experimenter (2015). Decades prior the story was also covered in the documentary Quiet Rage: The Stanford Experiment (1992). Nevertheless as a near-textbook study of oppressive social structures drawing out the worst human impulses the real incident remains fascinating enough to be worth revisiting.
Adapted from 'The Lucifer Effect', Zimbardo's own account of the incident, the film's greatest asset is its stellar cross-section of young talent. Alongside the more seasoned Billy Crudup the likes of Ezra Miller, then still basking in the angry young man promise of We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) before a move to blockbuster filmmaking saw things get weird, and Tye Sheridan essay the key roles of abused test subjects. At first the inmates treat the whole thing as a goof. Indeed with cast's youthful faces adorned by shaggy Seventies haircuts and wacky facial hair aspects of the film flirt perilously with coming across like an SNL skit. However once the 'guards' start meting out arbitrary punishments and abuse on their hapless captives the inevitable psychological toll becomes etched on the fractured faces of Sheridan and Miller. Even so their abruptly exits from the narrative, while factually accurate, have a hobbling effect liable to confuse and confound viewers given each seems set up to play a more significant role than proves the case. It is one of many missteps in an oddly lackadaisical film, lacking the David Fincher or Stanley Kubrick like level of sustained tension and lacerating wit to which it obviously aspires.
One could argue the film (indeed the point of Zimbardo's experiment) is better served by the casting of normally affable teen comedy and family film stars like Michael Angrano, Nicholas Braun and Moises Arias as nice, normal, clean cut college kids that suddenly turn into vindictive sadists. Angrano in particular excels as his character devolves into a swaggering bully boy, modelling himself on Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke (1967), abusing all in his path seemingly for his own satisfaction. Yet here too the film makes a crucial misstep. It fails to enlighten the audience as to Angrano's character's thought process save till a post-credits coda that, while admittedly thought provoking, is really due to the actors. Meanwhile virtually the lone female presence in the film Olivia Thirlby plays Zimbardo's then-fiance Dr. Christina Maslach who alone can see that the psychologist's judgement and humanity have been compromised by his own experiment.
Cinematographer Jas Shelton weaves a bilious, oppressive colour palette akin to Fincher's work, but the script by Tim Talbott (interestingly a veteran of South Park) flinches where it ought to be stark and probing. The most interesting subplot concerns Jessie Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), a former San Quentin inmate who assists Zimbardo as a consultant. He brings his own set of issues to an already hugely problematic arena, seemingly looking for some payback on these privileged white boys. Jessie's eventual recognition of his own flaws raises some interesting ideas the film frustratingly fails to develop. Which is emblematic of The Stanford Prison Experiment as a whole as it fumbles a complex, important story, looking for easy answers.