The ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ Movie Is a Sturdy Reminder That We’re All Awful


“Have you ever given in to an aggressive urge or impulse?” a psychologist asks a college volunteer. “No, no!” assures the student. “I go to Stanford.”

Thanks to that kid — and 23 others who joined the infamous study that gives its name to Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment — his school’s public association would go from prestigious university to proof of mankind’s innate violence. Researcher Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) built a makeshift prison and divided the boys into inmates and guards with a coin-flip. He lied to the guards that they’d been selected for their “exemplary qualities,” gave each a pair of dark sunglasses, and instructed them to keep order.

Depending on your tolerance for mental torture, the brutality that quickly followed made his experiment either a disaster or a huge success. Alvarez, for his part, doesn’t seem sure how he feels. His flick, written by Tim Talbott, is as straightforward as the title, perhaps even more neutral than the 1971 experiment itself (Zimbardo, too, began throwing around his authority when concerned observers advised him to call off the screaming nightmare).

Even simply sticking to the facts, the film is a painful watch, leavened only by its infatuation with Seventies period design (an opening close-up of rubber cement is practically fetishistic) and the horrors of Brady Bunch fashion. With the large cast including Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Johnny Simmons, Ki Hong Lee, and Thomas Mann, most of the next wave of young American male actors are here and doing solid work, not that you can recognize them under the muttonchops.

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez
IFC Films
Opens July 17, IFC Center