FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Stanford Prison Experiment
RPL Film Theatre
January 21-24
3 out of 5

It’s a major feat that the Stanford prison experiment became the most famous psychological study ever conducted, considering there wasn’t a control group, the research was regularly tampered with, and the number of unaccounted variables was off the charts. Credit to head researcher Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who tapped into the phenomenon of power as an all-consuming force, even at the most basic level.

While this isn’t the first film adaptation of the story, The Stanford Prison Experiment is the closest one to the real events. Perhaps it doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the other ones (the German version is a doozy), but the germ of truth carries it a long way.

In 1971, Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) rounded up a number of college students in need of a few extra bucks, locked them in the basement of the psychology building and recorded what happened. The kicker: they were divided into two groups — guards and prisoners — in order to prove their personality traits were the main cause of abusive behavior in prison.

Zimbardo was spectacularly wrong. The moment he locked the doors, the student “guards” asserted their position with growing zeal. Some of the prisoners resisted, while others became submissive. Even those in charge of the research became affected by it, and gave the guards increasing leniency.

Suffice it to say the experiment lasted considerably less time than originally planned.

Practically every young Hollywood actor on the verge of becoming a household name is in The Stanford Prison Experiment, including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan and Thomas Mann. While the cinematography is often drab (the matter at hand doesn’t quite call for Roger Deakins), some scenes are electric. The film only breaks the claustrophobic environment to give the audience a glimpse of Zimbardo’s personal life, a necessary evil given the role of his girlfriend in the final stage of the experiment.

Even though the movie is short on new insights, The Stanford Prison Experiment is worth a look.