“Some time back, I don’t know how we got on the topic, but a friend of mine was talking about a book he’d been reading, The Lucifer Effect. I’ll admit to only half paying attention at first (non-fiction, not so much my thing), but some of what he was saying about this prison experiment done at Stanford in the 70s caught my attention. And soon after, I forgot about it. Fast forward a bit, and when checking movie release schedules to update my calendar (what, you don’t keep movie releases on your calendar, too?), I saw mention of The Stanford Prison Experiment. “”Oh, that’s the thing we were talking about”” my brain said, and I marked its release (especially after noting some of the cast), hoping to see more information come out.
Fast forward a little further, and the film was being released around my vacations, in a short period that was already kinda saturated with movie trips. I shrugged it off, and figured I’d wait for Netflix or DVD’s or something. But then, I started to hear some quiet, but extremely positive buzz (including a really good Rotten Tomatoes rating, since been certified fresh). I read over the cast list again (Ezra Miller is fantastic and fascinates me to no end, Billy Crudup is pretty legit as well), and found a showing that would work into my schedule. I texted previously mentioned friend and invited him along, partly because I thought he’d enjoy it and he does like to join me at the movies when he can, but also partly selfishly because I wanted to hear his perspective, given that he already knows a lot about this subject. In our brief chat upon arriving, I found out he even knows Dr Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the whole thing, and has spoken with him about all this. I have cool friends.
Okay okay, so what exactly is this experiment? Back in the early 70’s, Dr Zimbardo put together an experiment that was meant to look at the psychological effects of prison life. A group of college age boys were selected, and split into two groups: prisoners and guards. A mock prison was constructed at Stanford, where the prisoners would live for two weeks, while the guards would rotate in on shifts. What ended up happening was that the situation escalated far more quickly than was anticipated. In exercising their authority, the guards began to abuse and degrade the prisoners, who violently fought back. In other words, things got real, real quick.
This movie was absolutely absorbing. There were a handful of other people in the auditorium, but it was always pin drop quiet. After setting our plans, I’d finally gotten around to watching the trailer which got me really excited. This looked like the kind of dark and messed up movies that I truly love (what does that say about me? Umm don’t answer that), and to top it all off this was real. As I was watching, and events started to unfold, I couldn’t help thinking that I would not have believed it if it were pure fiction. Again, zero to sixty was achieved pretty quick, and what punched me in the gut every time was when the day was labeled (Day 1, Day 2, etc). Surely everything we’d seen since the last one must have occurred over several days. What? Hours. Oh. I just couldn’t get my head around it, but knowing that this actually happened pulled me deeper in the rabbit hole. I suspect that if it weren’t true, I would have mentally disengaged, with suspension of disbelief being broken. Humans aren’t really that horrible, are they? Oh.
Such a fantastic fantastic cast. Ezra Miller delievered as one of the prisoners, just as I expected. I knew from We Need To Talk About Kevin that he’d give an explosive and intense performance, and oh God did he. I guess I was right to keep my eye on him. Billy Crudup also delievered, as expected. “”He looks just like him!”” my buddy exclaimed when he first came on screen. His focus and detachment all came across so well. Everytime my jaw dropped over something the boys in the experiment would do, it would drop even further by his reactions.
The surprise standout that I really need to call out is Michael Angarano. He has a place in my heart for his role on Will & Grace (a favorite series that was also a big influence; discussion for another time), and then leading Sky High, a silly Disney movie that did not deserve to be as enjoyable as it was (also a discussion for another time). I’ve seen him here and there since, and always kind of smile, and see as he plays the same reserved little shy boy. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what he was here. He was the harshest of the guards, the one who instigated and led everything. His character also approached his role as a guard like an actor, channeling Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke. From everything I’ve ever seen him in, not only would I not have expected this from him, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Just one more thing to shock me in an already shocking movie.
Yeah so, I loved it. I think we got that. Well, I don’t know if loved is the right word. Enjoyed maybe, at least in the same sense that people enjoy being scared by horror films. Or appreciated, but that doesn’t sound like the right level of intensity. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Right after the credits rolled, friend turned to me and said that much of what we just saw was toned down from what happened. Wha? He went on to point out a few minor differences as well as some key points from the study. It all just left me wanting more. I guess that means I’ve got a book to buy–as soon as I’m done re-reading the Dexter series. (Now I really don’t wanna know what you think that says about me)
The Stanford Prison Experiment – \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/”