The Stanford University prison experiment is perhaps one of the best known studies of behavioural psychology in modern times and, as a true story, it is both fascinating and terrifying to witness such rapid decay in human behaviour.
Halted after only six days, the experiment took place over the summer holiday period at Stanford University, USA in the 1970s. Volunteer students were placed in a simulated prison environment, chosen at random to be either a prisoner or guard. The ‘prisoners’ lived the experiment 24/7 whereas the guards got to go home at the end of each shift.
Within days of the experiment beginning, the participants began internalising the persona of their new roles, resulting in the situation getting out of hand with psychological and physical torture, abuse of power, escape attempts, sexual harassment and outbreaks of violence. The experiment was so immersive that even those monitoring and recording events from the control room became too involved and failed to stop the spiralling situation.
The Stanford Prison Experiment, just released on DVD, is a mesmerising and unsettling retelling of those six extraordinary days. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez has assembled an excellent cast for this dramatic thriller that is nothing less that a real-life Lord of the Flies story.
The script is written by Tim Talbot and, no less, Dr Philip Zimbardo himself, who ran the experiment back in the ‘70s. The writing is superb, tackling the story from all angles and solidly grounding the events in reality. At the end of the film, we are even made privy to some of those source recordings. To have the responsible professor collaborate on the writing adds enormous gravitas to the film.
Billy Crudup stars as Dr Zimbardo, and the character is spared little or no shame for his role in how serious the situation became. Crudup is joined by other excellent performances from Erza Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano and Ki Hong Lee, amongst others.
Winning two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including Best Screenplay, this is edge-of-your-seat viewing that gets right into it from the opening scenes of selecting the participants. You no longer have to attend a psychology class to learn about this infamous experiment gone wrong. It’s compulsive viewing, well told and something you’re bound to talk about for a long time after the closing titles.
Reviewed by Rod Lewis
Rating out of 10: 9
The Stanford Prison Experiment is out now on DVD and Digital.
- The Stanford Prison Experiment official film website
- Official Stanford Prison Experiment website
- IFC Films: The Stanford Prison Experiment