“Misbehavior will not be tolerated.”
Human history proves that power cannot be trusted. There are hidden agendas, secret motives, unwitting participants overseen by all-knowing rulers. Scale that down a bit and you get The Stanford Prison Experiment (TSPE for short). As the film dives headfirst into the psychology of authority and its unhinged and often overflowing abuse of control, we become a participant ourselves. What is this movie trying to do to me? What reaction is hoped for? The questions pile on as the famous experiment mutates into a study on fear, mob mentality, and the fundamental basics, as well as the complexities, of human interaction. I found that TSPE had style but was unequipped to bring this story based on actual events from 1971 to the screen in a timeless fashion. It strikes fear in its characters and merely disturbs us. In this social climate, with these incarceration rates, an ability to place us in the shoes of the young men would not have only been opportune; it was essential.
Maybe that’s a result of the experiment itself though. We’re told that these young kids all go on to live normal lives without a hitch. Even if they were truly terrified during this trial cut short to only six days, the apprehension never followed them. And I’m afraid the film’s effect doesn’t either. What did stay with me was the outstanding collected ensemble. TSPE, somewhat similar to The Outsiders in 1983, is a darker and moodier introduction to some of the best young actors working today (although, while portraying the 70’s yuppie Stanford elite, the cast could not have been any more whitewashed if it tried). One by one they’re interviewed, spoonfed control questions meant to determine if they will play guard or prisoner during their “stint” in jail. The overwhelming majority want to be prisoners. “Nobody likes guards,” one says, showing an association of good and bad right off the bat. The young men play their roles like finely tuned weapons of political and social propaganda.
If possible, I highly suggest going into the film without much knowledge of the actual proceedings. Let the picture paint itself rather than adding your own subjective touches. Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) leads a team of burn the midnight oil psychologists. They’re akin to big game hunters, out looking for the perfect volunteers/specimen. It’s $15 a day for what should be a breeze of an exercise. Instead, the confinement stirs a squall, a product of boredom and obedience. The guards learn to become the ruthless sentinels; the prisoners the unwillingly imprisoned. TSPE is a game of cops and robbers played by young college boys on the brink of, hopefully, becoming men. Everything takes place in an empty and unused hallway fashioned to be a temporary miniature prison. It feels inauthentic, unreal even, that anyone could take this seriously. But if you were asked to do the same by a persuasive professor – a doctor of science – would you really bring anything into question?
The cast is too formidable and deep to really dissect every moving piece. But, as always, there are standouts to be recognized. First off, I still don’t understand how Billy Crudup is not a household name. With this, last year’s performance in Rudderless, and perhaps his best known work in Almost Famous, the man shows he can act with the best of them. Somewhere in the race for the next great actor, passing the baton from one generation to the next, it was dropped before it met his deserving hand. He’s as talented as they come. The youngsters here are great as well, although Ezra Miller overacts to the point he’s annoyingly emphatic and Tye Sheridan underacts so much he might as well not have shown up. And while most suffice, the clear winner is Michael Angarano as the “head guard.” It should be a star-making role for the actor who rightfully turned heads in 2010’s Ceremony. He is perfect for the role, and when the film becomes tiresome and weary, he’s able to make his presence known with a roar or a reclusive restraint. Angarano’s performance, blending adult observations with childlike ambivalence, is one of the best supporting turns so far in 2015. His cowpoke take with John Wayne inspiration brands its way into your head.
Part of the problem, for me, was that I knew this fictional depiction was in fact fiction. It’s play, make belief, a reenactment of past events. Since it tries, and succeeds, in adhering so closely to the truth, it undeniably loses force in its closing remarks. This is blue-collar litigation that unravels in the end not because of effort, but because of focus. Things are simply missing. The tone is either subdued to the point that I literally dozed off for a few seconds, or so in your face that you feel confronted, like a victim of traffic jam road rage. That’s the story though. It’s up and down every which way the emotional turbulence can take you. But as a film, as something we experience primarily visually and auditorily, it doesn’t harmonize. This is something that needs to be lived to be understood and felt, and is foreboding to a fault, with an awkward reluctance to the proceedings and character developments which disengage the audience. The narrative is so tied up in solitary confinement that The Stanford Prison Experiment, while decidedly powerful, loses every part of its storytelling veracity.
“How about we make this one a night to remember?”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5