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With: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun, Gaius Charles, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Ezra Miller, Logan Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, James Wolk, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis, Matt Bennett, Jesse Carere, Brett Davern, James Frecheville, Miles Heizer, Jack Kilmer, Callan McAuliffe, Benedict Samuel, Chris Sheffield, Harrison Thomas
Written by: Tim Talbott
Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
MPAA Rating: R for language including abusive behavior and some sexual references
Running Time: 122
Date: 07/17/2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A movie about the real-life 1971 Stanford prison experiment could have been sadistic and unwatchable, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's clinical approach focuses on realism and psychological drama rather than on thrills. Alvarez doesn't try to professionally polish the prison setting; instead it has a functional, homemade look that makes it feel more immediate. The way the characters wear their hair and clothes, and they way they carry themselves contributes to what feels like an authentic period piece.

In August of 1971, at Stanford University, Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) prepares for a most unusual kind of experiment. He recruits several male students to portray either prisoners or guards in a mock prison situation (a coin toss decides their role). A hallway and several offices are prepared as cells. The guards quickly adapt to their roles of authority, aided by their uniforms, nightsticks, sunglasses, while the prisoners — wearing numbered gowns and stocking caps — become submissive. The experiment is planned to last two weeks, but it's only a matter of days before things escalate beyond expectations, and the guards begin submitting prisoners to more extreme methods of psychological torture.

The ensemble performances are strong, with the actors uniformly selling the horrors of the grim material, especially former child actor Michael Angarano, who, for his guard role, decides to adopt a scary southern accent (like Strother Martin's in Cool Hand Luke). Billy Crudup is also terrific, balancing the scholarly importance of his study with its moral conundrums, as is Nelsan Ellis as a former real-life prisoner who consults. It's a fascinating, revealing experience.

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