The Stanford Prison Experiment makes us all contemplate the monsters inside of us and how power can bring them out

To call The Stanford Prison Experiment a “think piece” would be far from the truth. However, it is a piece about thinking.

The newest addition to The Athena Cinema is Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s award-winning The Stanford Prison Experiment. Its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival won it first prize for a feature film. The film stars a cast of relatively unknown actors, but that is certainly no reflection of the acting displayed. Billy Crudup plays Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the film’s lead and mastermind of the prison experiment.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is based on a groundbreaking psychological study from the 1970s of the same name. For those unaware of the nature of said experiment, Stanford professors recruited 24 male students to take part in a controlled experiment: They were to inhabit a mock prison system. The students were randomly assigned roles as either prisoners or guards, and the “guards” were told they were chosen because of their impressive qualifications, when in reality it was a simple coin flip.

The study was scheduled to run for two weeks in the basement of the Stanford psychology building in the summer of 1971, but it only lasted six days. Dr. Zimbardo aimed to determine the inception of abusive behavior in prisons and study the effects that power has on people. However, as the study progressed, the guards become increasingly intoxicated with their own fraudulent sense of power. This conflict is where the film takes hold.

Due to the historical and biographical elements of The Stanford Prison Experiment, anyone already familiar with the study is aware of the general direction of the plot before they enter the theater. No sense of historical context, however, can prepare a viewer for the intense struggle between Dr. Zimbardo and his search for truth.

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Using divisive camera angles and close-up shots, Alvarez takes the viewer as close as possible into the minds of his characters. One of the focal points of the film is Prisoner 8612, played by Ezra Miller, who played Patrick in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Miller’s portrayal of 8612 perfectly embodies the distressed mind and showcases the toll mental anguish takes on a young brain. After seeing his most recent incendiary performance, it is evident that Miller has carved out a niche role as the “troubled youth.”

An underlying theme of The Stanford Prison Experiment is an emphasis on the ordinary and mundane aspects of life, and how they come together to invoke radical change. Whether it be the flip of a coin, the placement of an ad or the keys on a typewriter, no detail is too small for Alvarez to ignore. These small details are brought into focus because of the incredible impact they all have on the subjects and the study. An ordinary coin flip has monumental consequences on the study and the participants, giving them an arbitrary title and sense of empowerment. The coin flip itself is truly the focal point of the experiment, as it is a study of the effects of power and rank on the human psyche.

But perhaps the most prominent theme of The Stanford Prison Experiment is an unflinching look into the deep, dark crevices of the human mind. Both the film and the study itself are prime examples of the demonizing effects that unbridled power has on people. It is showcased that all the revolutionary thoughts and actions in the world are powerless against natural human inclination. However, the facts needed to be brought to light.  To quote Dr. Zimbardo, “I had no idea it would turn out this way. This is important, to me. The results are important.”

Rating: 4/5


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