The Stanford Prison Experiment, 2015

© IFC Films

This review may contain spoilers.

Daniel Culp: I know you’re a nice guy.
Christopher Archer: So why do you hate me?
Daniel Culp: Because I know what you can become.

I had been conducting research for some years on deindividuation, vandalism and dehumanization that illustrated the ease with which ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous, or they could perceive of others in ways that made them less than human, as enemies or objects.

–  Professor Philip Zimbardo at the Toronto symposium in 1996
The researchers recruited students for a study using an advertisement. shown above

At the time the film was being promoted, I did some research on the real experiment of 1971 undertaken at the Stanford University Campus in the basement of the institute’s psychological wing. The head researcher for the project, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), and his team of scientists – including a real-life ex-convict from San Quentin – went on to great lengths to orchestrate one of the most controversial studies in the field of psychology whose main purpose was to gauge the compressibility of men, in their twenties, under extreme pressure. Dr. Zimbardo designed and built an elaborate prison-like structure on the campus of Stanford University and began his experiment by recruiting twenty-four young men and randomly selecting the ‘guards’ and the ‘prisoners’ from the lot. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G., 2013) recreates the conditions, which were set up back then, his set designers transform the locations to the horrifying corridor and the cell-units, the filmmakers make sure that The Stanford Prison Experiment is as chilling a watch as a human experimentation film can be. Alvarez and cinematographer Jas Shelton re-create a thought-provoking, absorbing environment for the viewers and also for the actors, who by the end of it had started losing it for real, making the progression of film filled with a sense of foreboding and dread and also some humor. The dense, pressure cooker script by Tim Talbott is rich and accurate with acute facts intermingling with fiction, leaving a whole lot for the audience to discuss, to argue about. As the pressure cranks up, the film also begins to feel like an experiment within an experiment, with disuniting and schismatic genre tropes.

See, 819? That’s not a prison it’s a corridor.

We watch as the Guards put on the make-shift uniforms, shades, and batons. The researchers have drawn a very thin between what they can and can not do with the prisoners. A couple of times, in the film, Dr. Zhivago lets things happen, even with fallible consequences and all eyes on him as his fellow researchers look at each other and then to the Professor to legitimize the action, seeking approval of Zimbardo.

The Prisoners are made to wear dresses and what looked like nylon stockings on their heads (the first step towards humiliation). Flash is here as Daniel Culp/Prisoner 8612 and he seems to get the shortest end of the stick; until one of the participants, James Frecheville as Matthew Townshend/ a Guard and Tye Sheridan as Peter Mitchell/Prisoner 819 lose it completely and quite early in the film due to psychological meltdown.
The experiment is initiated and everyone takes their places. Then the guards storm in. They represent absolute power and keep testing the researchers in how far they can go. They also subject the Prisoners to some of the most disgraceful treatment ever (according to the film, and according to director Kyle Patrick Alvarez). The script is written with the foot on the accelerator, it refuses to slow down, catch its breath, making it reckless as the plot keeps paying dwindling returns, making the film feel a lot longer than its run-time.

However forty-nineyears have passed and ‘The Hole’ did not seem intimidating, despite the gruesome, scrupulous detail with which the film makes headway. They are humiliated with orders to make the beds for twelve times in a row and then having the beds thrown out of the cells later – well, I guess this mountain-man needs more to feel insinuated by the visuals, that is not to say that the film is not grim and intimidating by giving us glimpses of the rogue id and human impulses, especially when emblazoned with power to do as they deem fit.
Cardio exercises in a dress did not get a reaction out of this sinner man. I am sure, at the time the twelve Prisoners felt they were going through hell; and they certainly were, by being left to the mercy of the Guards who suddenly start to take things with deliberate menace making the exercise more therapeutic than required. Michael Angarano as one of the Guards is sort of the leader of the pack. The researchers call him John Wayne, the Prisoners want to tear him in half; him and this other gent who looks like Rambo Man. They want to be called Mr. Correctional Officer, sir. 

Additionally, the experiment is taken to a new level where the researchers call in a priest to convince the Prisoners of divvy up crimes made up for their experiment study files, at the time of recruitment. The exchange between the priest and the prisoners is such that after a while we srat believing that these men have actually done some very bad things, when they haven’t and are being conditioned into believing so. This is one of the parts in the film that affected this pilgrim in so many ways; but that is a different matter, to be discussed some other time.

Priest: “Prisoner 5486. What measures are you taking to secure your release?”
Prisoner (baffled): “Secure my release?”

Experiment ventures even further into the dark abyss of the human psyche when the parole board, again consisting of Dr. Zimbardo and his team interview the subdued and frightened Prisoners, broken boys, rattled human beings who have been here only for three or four days and already showing signs of psychosis through repeated humiliation and listening to the words: “YOU HAVE NO RIGHTS!”
They are interviewed and their own forced and rehearsed and written explanations (from before the experiment began and during the excercise) and kind words for the Guards put them in a folly of sorts. Actor Nelsan Ellis as Jesse (the man from San Quentin) grills all hope out of the boys. 

“What are you here for”
“Assault with a weapon”
“That’s serious shit.”
“I know” (The Prisoners have agreed to and conditioned for more than just role play).
“You state here that you are sorry for the horrible insults you slurred at the guards?”
“Prisoner 1037 do you really think you can be paroled at this time?”
No answer

Everything is transcendent, entirely-calculated, well shot using the restricted environment to full effect, the direction and the DP is also above average and the hardly audible bass score is a catalyst to madness. 

However, however half a century has passed. Yes, in 1971 the conditions created for the subjects were strict and looked terrifying and fashionable in the face of Experiments by Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert (The Harvard Psilocybin Project). Plus it served as a perfect pressure chamber. Things have changed since. Our homes have become pressure chambers and what have you.
We have Gitmo now, we have the 24-7 news to repeatedly sensationalize and drive us crazy with the real violence being shown on TV these days, we do not have Dr. Leary anymore, we also have makeshift cells all over the world that would drive a man crazy in an hour or a day (if the captive is James Bond), to take on the interrogation and let deus-ex-machina intervene. We have films ‘based on true events‘ that make us think twice before complaining about stress at work. We have films like The Green Elephant, 1999, “Secuestrados, 2010“, extremely hard films to watch that get into under the skin making you wonder what if that happens to me, after all, it did happen to them? Then there is Das Experiment, 2001 and Men Behind the Sun, 1989 – based on Unit 731 and full of rats and an overblown plot but quite a treat to watch if you want to watch both sides go crazy. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment reminded me of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975 in so many ways (although Experiment is far tamer and way less unmerciful), sans the extreme psychological impact/pressure chamber vacuum and the permanent damage the film causes to the psyche. It made me think that if Salo was released today it would be hailed as a fucking achievement in film-making by the majority and not just a handful whose subconscious has been shaped by the film by Pasolini

Experiment is well acted and well scripted and extensively researched and not taken liberty with, but again, it just fails to get an extreme reaction (as promised by the reviews in the feather arrangement on the DVD cover). Alright, it was an experiment but without a crime having been committed, and that is one of the reasons you are only left with deceptive morality to defend yourself in the face of childish cruelty. 

© Image Courtesy Stanford Archives

Guard Christopher Archer: “What would you do if you were in my place?”
Prisoner 8612: “I don’t know man, I know you are not like that but you know what you can become.”
Guard (smiling): “Yeah man you don’t know, you do not know until you have it.”

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