Movie Review: ‘THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT’ – One of the Year’s Most Important Films

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Preston Barta // Features Editor


THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT | 122 min | R
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Cast: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Chris Sheffield, Moises Arias, Johnny Simmons, Nicholas Braun, Keir Gilchrist, Thomas Mann, James Wolk, Nelsan Ellis and Olivia Thirlby

Perhaps you remember reading about the Stanford Prison Experiment that happened in 1971, in which some student volunteers played the role of prisoners and others acted as guards. It was a one of the most famous social-science experiments in history. Designed to last two weeks, things got ugly, and quick.

The idea stemmed from the 1961 Milgram Experiments, where participants were measured by their willingness to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. After the results of that experiment were deemed inconclusive, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup in the film) got the idea of setting up a fake prison at Stanford, where guards ordered around prisoners to see how they reacted and functioned in the environment.

The rest is history, and for you to see in this tightly-wound thriller that is equal parts horrifying and captivating. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (EASIER WITH PRACTICE) goes above and beyond what most filmmakers would go with the material. It so easily could have veered off into melodramatic ground, but Alvarez keeps this story as twisted as it really was, where guards pushed aside their morals and took advantage of their power.

The film puts forth a question for audiences to mull over: do you really know what you would do if you were in the shoes of these volunteers? The answer is no, you really wouldn’t. See, the truth is, most of us would like to believe we are morally sound people, and granted times are different. When tragedy strikes the world, we’re quick to share our opinions on the matter, stating how we would never do such a thing. Many times we find ourselves glued to television series or movies where people do bad things, yet we root for them. Why is that? Some believe that we all have a dark side within us, living vicariously through the ill-tempered individuals in entertainment shows. If we were giving X amount of money and position of power where we could control the treatment and order of others, there really is no telling what you would do. That is the single most powerful aspect of the film. But, thankfully, we don’t have to worry about something like this and can just sit back from the comfort of our seats.

Left, Michael Angarano plays one of the guards, while Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Ezra Miller and Chris Sheffield play the prisoners of the Stanford experiment. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Left, Michael Angarano plays one of the guards, (L-R) while Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Ezra Miller and Chris Sheffield play the prisoners of the Stanford experiment. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is not an easy watch by any means; it really tests your limitations as a viewer. However, the film knows this. The guards break the rule forbidding physical violence on Day 1, and the mind games ensue from there. Some go as far as forcing the prisoners to play “husband and wife.” It’s really messed up, but it’s something that really happened (listen to the recordings online). You often forget you’re watching a movie because it feels so real.

The film makes for a grueling yet fascinating two hours at the cinema. It features standout performances, especially from Michael Angarano (ALMOST FAMOUS), Ezra Miller (THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER), Chris Sheffield (THE MAZE RUNNER), Tye Sheridan (MUD) and Crudup (BIG FISH). Each are compelling to watch in their roles, in and out of character.

Yes, not everyone will be able to stomach THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT. If, however, you are a fan of the cautionary tales of history or faithfully adapted stories and want to see a horrifyingly true story from our own backyard, then you’ll benefit from seeing this remarkable film. It’ll crawl up your skin and leave you with a lot to talk and think about.

THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT opens at Look Cinemas in Dallas, TX, on July 31st. However, the film is playing in select theaters and is available on Video-On-Demand today.

Note: Look for our interview with director Kyle Patrick Alvarez next week, where we discuss the harrowing tale.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.