Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) Review

I came across this movie seeing the trailer on Facebook and I was like “oh yeah, this looks great. It has Ezra Miller?!? Oh I love him. Tye Sheridan? Oh yeah. Michael Ang-whose name I never get right lol. I’m all over this movie.” I’m about to see this movie in theaters and then I find out it’s already out. So, the next day I picked it up from the library.

Summary: Twenty-four male students out of seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Based on true events.

 

Pros:
Cast and Characters. Now, as I always do, I will mention the standouts but I think overall, everyone in this movie does a good job in their roles. I think the students are the ones who really steal this movie. The “adult” roles are fine but honestly outside of them being there, they’re rather forgettable.
  • Ezra Miller (Daniel Culp/ 8612). First off, I adore Ezra Miller and everything I have seen him in, I think he excels so this role is no different. Culp is the first student we see and he says he would like to be a prisoner in the experiment as it “seemed like less work” and when he actually is randomly selected to be a prisoner, he takes the role on as a joke. He is the only student we see be mock arrested and put through the process before actually going to jail and immediately the viewer connects with him. He takes it lightly in the beginning, laughing, cracking jokes with the other prisoners, knowing in their contract they could rebel and the guards couldn’t physically harm them. When things start getting a bit to…serious he is the first one to speak out. Miller does these little ticks that show how the character is reacting to certain things. When he is first arrested, he’s laughing but when they blindfold him, there’s a sharp intake of breath because that’s new, then later when he’s told to strip naked, he has to wait because the guards forgot to bring something and though he’s still blindfolded, it’s plain to see he’s already starting to get nervous. When the next shift of guards make them repeat their prisoner numbers over and over, one of the prisoners is told to do a series of exercises, he does these little twitches which shows he wants to say something so badly. He does, usually every time, and some of the guards purposely seek him out because of it. There are a lot of great scenes with this character that I need to stop talking about him before it gets longer.
  • Tye Sheridan (Peter Mitchell/819). He seems like he was one of the younger students but wary from the beginning as we see him when he goes through the process (the name is totally escaping me). He already is questioning the guards taking their roles “too seriously” and for a while, his character is more or less, Culp’s friend and the intended partner in crime, but once they share a “solitary” sentence together, they’re put into separate rooms and his new cellmates do their own form of rebellion. Later, his character becomes a bit more emotional and Sheridan does such a great job in showing the nervousness of this young man, his want to be rebellious, him actually being rebellious and then his ultimate freak out. The emotions with this character is amazing where there is a scene, where I felt so bad for him I wanted to cry.
  • Michael Angarano (Christopher Archer). He plays one of the guards, at first he wants to be a prisoner because he recognizes that no one likes guards but is the last option next to Culp for a role and is ultimately drawn as the guard. Archer practices his role a few times in the mirror and eventually settles on a persona, it’s just a role to him, and he falls into it very well. Angarano is playing Archer playing this guard whose persona is “John Wayne” and he does it so well that he’s intimidating and degrading with his words alone. Towards the end, his character gets a bit more crass but it’s obvious this guy is just enjoying his role and doesn’t even think what he’s doing is that bad. His scene with Ezra Miller where he keeps making him remake his bed pushes the film into dangerous territory.
  • There are many others such as Johnny Simmons, Brett Davern, Chris Sheffield and Nicholas Braun who are also notable in their roles as well. These students go through so much in such a short amount of time and even Braun who plays a guard, becomes a very scary presence who is a step forward to the extreme than Angarano’s character is. He definitely purposely had it out for Miller’s character.
The Story. As this is based on a true story, there is a lot that could be taken from the real experience and I’m sure there is but the movie stands on it’s own so well, that it’s horrific and something that is not easily looked away from. The fact that the professor thought his study of “what happens when good people are put into bad situations, mainly in prisons” would work without people actually getting too much into their roles was already intriguing and sad. You’re a psychology professor SIR! Also dealing with the fact that Dr. Phillp Zimbarda who was leading the experiment, got swept up in it himself that he allowed it to go on for so long and only stopped it when an outsider, his girlfriend, brought things to his attention that he was already a witness too.
The Emotional Aspects. It’s not a tear jerker, unless the viewer is emotional but it’s so conflicting. Just as the prisoners are being introduced to their new “reality” or are emotionally going through the situation, we are as well because it’s like we see the situation as both an outsider and a prisoner. As an outsider, we’re upset at their situation because we cannot fathom being in it just as they were stunned at their treatment because they didn’t think it would happen. But as we watch it, we can see the situation through the eyes of the prisoners where it’s hard to decide whether or not to fight back or just sit and take it. It’s so conflicting that by the end of the movie, you can’t help but to think about it more afterwards. I can’t imagine anyone thinking what happened was successful or positive but it does raise so many more questions in this experiment. There are a lot of scenes where I couldn’t look away even if it was too horrible, especially towards the end with Prisoner 2903. Prisoner 819 has some great emotional scenes where you want to save the poor boy and of course 8612 has great stuff.
The Camerawork/Cinematography. There’s a lot of cool camerawork in this movie, a lot of directing choices that enhanced the storyline. The film is set in the early 70s, so there’s already a smoky, almost tan tint to the film that makes it look like it’s pulled directly from that time period. There is a scene where the guards are storming the cells after facing some rebellion and the camera does a long tracking shot from above, where we’re looking down into the cells as the other prisoners react to what’s happening around them. The slow motion choices used during “violent” parts to emphasize the treatment from their classmates who were really taking on these guard roles, as well as showcasing the prisoner’s fear. It’s so claustrophobic that it’s so easy to get uncomfortable.
The Escape Scene. Without trying to spoil much, there’s a scene where two prisoners manage to escape their designated area and attempt to flee the basement. However, they don’t know where they are, or how to get out as they were all blindfolded when led inside. They run through the hallways, trying to find an unlocked door but the guards on duty catch them and the Professor and his colleagues block another exit. That scene is done so well, with the prisoners involved, they are really trying to find a way out as they’re fed up and tensions run high as you want them to escape but at the same time, you’re wondering, how are they going to get out if they have no idea where they are? What are they going to do? If they get out are they really going to send help since it was an experiment they all signed up and are getting paid for? Also, what were the doctors going to do?  That scene is done so well, from them escaping their cell all the way to them being caught… so good.
The Characters’ Ages. We are never actually told their ages which I first considered a “con” because it would help me be a bit more emotionally invested in knowing their ages however, I think not knowing is a good thing because obviously the ages range from 18 to probably 22, or even 26 depending if anyone is in graduate school, but you know they’re just students. They think this experiment was going to be fun, they think it was just going to be a simple two week thing but when the terror starts to happen, you have to constantly remind yourself, they’re boys, they’re young boys because their ages don’t matter anymore. It makes them more vulnerable because we’re left wondering… how old is the oldest and how young is the youngest? But… how could these guards who are the same ages as the prisoners do this?
Cons:
Disappearing Characters. Again, I know this is based off a true story and I read that some students really did manage to be released early from the experiment, but that sucked for the movie as the ones who were released early were the most interesting prisoners! Once they were gone, especially one of them (without spoiling, you know exactly who I’m talking about when watching) it’s hard to care about the remaining prisoners because they weren’t focused on beforehand so outside of the situation, there’s really no connection to them.
The Look of Some Characters. This is not necessarily their costumes, but more of the choices in wigs/hair/mustaches. It’s a small thing but it’s so noticeable that it was annoying. One of the guards seemed young and he had this ugly blonde mustache that he didn’t need. Another guard, had this long wig, which I didn’t even recognize the actor until the end and when I rewatched the film, I paid more attention and wow, his hair looked horrible. I don’t know if the excuse would be because it was the early 70s but those who had facial hair, outside of Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano and another prisoner, everyone else’s facial hair looked fake. It was nice they all looked so different but they could have looked better.
Supporting Characters. Everyone is not bad, in fact the cast is good as a whole but some of the characters are just there. In the group of prisoners, everyone has their moment to “shine” but there’s at least four or five of them who are easily forgotten. One of them gets a big emotional part towards the end but otherwise, 8612 and 819 are way more interesting. Then with the adults, there is Dr. Zimbarda who is an interesting character as he’s the one who put the experiment together, but he didn’t calculate for everything and he hates it when people question his experiment and his methods, he gets a bit more interesting at the end, but outside of watching him watch the students, it’s not easy to connect with him because it’s so easy to be disgusted with him. The only other notable person is Jesse Fletcher but his character is conflicting enough that his arc is understood but again, he’s not really a character to fully connect with though it’s probably easier to get with him than it is Dr. Zimbarda.
The Tone. While the camerawork and everything is great, the movie gets a bit too… repetitive. There’s bullying, there’s rebellion, the doctors just sit and watch… then rinse and repeat. I’m sure that’s how it went most of the time in the real experiment, but I think it would have been… more emotional, dramatic and refreshing in this film, if other things happened. Of course the prisoners didn’t need to be let out of their confined area but there could have been more camaraderie seen between them, Miller’s character tried to inspire rebellion but not everyone lived up to it, or were on the same page as him.
The Payoff. This is probably more at fault with the real experiment than with the movie but it’s noticeable in the movie as it’s closely based off the real life events but in the end, we are tortured alongside these young men that when we get to the end, we expect to see something that comes from the experiment and honestly there isn’t. In real life, the experiment is the reason why people must go before an Ethics Board before conducting social experiments but in terms of findings, conclusions, nothing is really… there so the end is so frustrating that the journey almost doesn’t seem worth it; it is though but I can see why someone might feel differently.
Overall, this movie packs a punch to the gut because it makes you want to know more about the experiment itself. Most have heard of it as it is touched on in most Psychology classes, but this film allows a theatrical look that a documentary cannot provide. The creative camerawork helps to put the viewer right in there with the prisoners with the confined feelings, the emotional torture, the rebellion they try to fall into but ultimately getting cut off at the knees. The cast is strong working together, while all characters aren’t all that interesting themselves, you find the ensemble is what this film really stands on. Ezra Miller is a strong stand out in his role as the rebellious Daniel Culp as well as Tye Sheridan and Michael Angarano as Prisoner 819 and Guard “John Wayne”. The emotional weight is hard to stomach which is the point and the story is such an interesting and rich one that you want to know more. Unfortunately, more interesting characters fall away which leaves characters the viewers haven’t connected with left to lead the rest of the film which kind of makes the emotional connection decrease. Other supporting characters such as the adults aren’t as interesting, we do get to see character arcs but they’re just there until the plot needs them to react differently to what is going on. But this movie is so good that I would watch it again, even if it’s a hard one to watch, it’s so fascinating that it’s hard to not want to watch it again.
Rating: 3.69 out of 5 stars.
Have you seen Stanford Prison Experiment? What do you think about it? Do you think this particular experiment could have had a more positive outcome if Dr. Zimbarda prevented the guards from degrading the prisoners or if he was on the prisoners’ side as much as he was on the guards? Check out the actual experiment. So fascinating.
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