Sundance Hong Kong 2015 Review: THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT Wields Significant Power
The events that went down at Jordan Hall in August 1971 have been recounted numerous times and inspired at least two films already - Oliver Hirschbiegel's excellent Das Experiment (2001) starring Moritz Bleibtreu and Paul Scheuring's American remake from 2010, starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker. For this latest adaptation, writer Tim Talbott and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez return to the source for a meticulous account of exactly what happened - and why - at the Californian university.
The experiment itself involved converting a disused teachers wing at Stanford University into a prison facility. Volunteers would be paid $15 per day to take part in the two week experiment. After preliminary interviews, the volunteers were then randomly assigned roles either as prisoners or guards. There were very few rules, other than that guards wielded absolute power over their charges, but were not allowed to use physical violence. Suffice to say, things got out of hand very quickly and the resulting debacle is often held up as a startling example of the intoxicating influence of power, something that can be witnessed all too often in real life as well as the media.
Alvarez has assembled an enviable cast of young up-and-coming performers, guided by Billy Crudup as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who conceived of the experiment. Ezra Miller (We Need To Talk About Kevin), Tye Sheridan (Mud), Johnny Simmons (Scott Pilgrim Vs The World) and Thomas Mann (Me And Earl And The Dying Girl) appear among the inmates, while Michael Angarano (The Knick), Moises Arias (The Spectacular Now) and Nicholas Braun play guards. Olivia Thirlby (Dredd), draws the token female role, as Zimbardo's former student now lover, while Nelsan Ellis plays an ex-con brought in as a consultant.
Period detail plays a big part in the film. Whereas other adaptations of the story have generally taken place in the present day, The Stanford Prison Experiment embraces its early 70s setting. This goes beyond the enthusiastic array of wigs and facial hair to include plenty of fetishised audio-visual equipment, which Zimbardo and his team use to surveil what is going on.
Of course, as the guards begin to abuse their powers, and the prisoners incite rebellious tactics of their own, Zimbardo and his team become increasingly complicit themselves, as they resist the temptation to abort the experiment and lose their data. Crudup does a great job of walking Zimbardo along the line between blindingly ambitious academic and dangerous sociopath. Undoubtedly he oversteps his boundaries, abuses his position and puts his volunteers through serious emotional trauma, but he remains grounded in reality. Likewise Anagarano's portrayal of Cool Hand Luke loving Chris Archer is terrifying, identifying the character as a villain without over-inflating him to that of cartoonish malevolence.
Even audiences aware of the story and how it unfolded should find The Stanford Prison Experiment a riveting and fascinating watch, both for the occasionally unbelievable drama that plays out, but also because of what the conditions and results say about the human condition and our ability to abuse and leverage any authoritative power we may have over others, whether for personal gain, or occasionally for nothing more than the sick pleasure of making another man squirm.