The Stanford Prison Experiment
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who has never shied away from touchy subjects, including religion (C.O.G) and phone sex (Easier with Practice), pushes even further, giving us "The Stanford Prison Experiment." Although it has elements of a period piece on the 1970s, the film, in style and content, especially with its muted brown and orange colors, bears a striking resemblance to "Compliance" by Craig Zobel, a film about terror, manipulation and sexual violence.
The first frames of the film show very clinical shots of a typewriter followed by ink presses and linotypes running multiple copies of an ad asking for candidates, along with bottles of india ink and rubber cement. All of the objects resemble evidence in a serial killer's lab. Although it primarily features inanimate things, it creates a most intriguing few minutes which make us wonder who the culprit is and his reasons for publishing the notice.
Zimbardo receives several student applicants who are screened and told they are to act as either prisoners or guards for fifteen dollars a day during a two week period in the university hall. Most of them prefer the option of prisoner. They are not told when the study will begin. The guards and inmates are determined by a flip of the coin.
Late one summer day, seemingly at random, the participants are arrested by actual police on made up charges and taken to a makeshift Stanford prison with real bars.
The prisoners are badgered and made to strip naked by the other student guards. Humiliations commence.
Though the events are horrifying and beyond fathoming, the most disquieting aspect is in the character of Dr. Zimbardo, who ardently believes that all trauma and stress can be absorbed by science and controlled. We watch him oscillate from confidence and exhilaration, to arrogance, worry and then panic.
He makes a Faustian bargain.
Actor Erza Miller ( The Perks of Being a Wallflower) gives a visceral and emotive performance as Daniel, the first student who attempts to escape.
Compelling too, is Michael Angarano as Christopher, a student guard who imitates a grotesque version of Strother Martin from "Cool Hand Luke".
As in the aforementioned film "Compliance," initial commonplace events warp into a dreamy incomprehension and one may indeed ponder the reptile that lies within us all, given specific circumstances. Sleep deprivation, terror and physical harm being only a few.
"The Stanford Prison Experiment" has a sudden stark and dreamlike quality that echoes Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke and it is all the more upsetting because it occurred, lasting only four days due to the mental health of the participants and disrupting the stability of all parties involved.
A testament to the power of this film, I left the theater looking at passersby strangely, pondering their inner nature while trying see the paradisiacal sadist that just might dwell within.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org