A series of film reviews and opinion pieces from a film student and all round movie lover! Happy reading!
Directed By: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Produced By: Brent Emery, Lizzie Friedman, Karen Lauder, Greg Little, Christopher McQuarrie
Written By: Tim Talbott
Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Logan Miller, Nelsan Miller
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Psychology is a fascinating scientific field that unearths new and staggering discoveries about the human mind with every single day that passes.
The particular field of science and philosophy lends itself astonishingly well to the realm of film when observing the influential, manipulative capabilities of the medium upon an audience. Where films can have a psychological effect on us, films about historical and controversial psychological studies can have an even larger impact.
A case study that goes down in history as one of the most dangerous and controversial of all is The Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971. Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s 2015 film of the same name dramatises the study and allows the audience to venture deep into the tortuous, ethical nightmare from every angle, resulting in a rather disturbingly gritty depiction of the callous capabilities of everyday human beings.
In what could be a down-the-line biopic of famed psychologist Philip Zimbardo, The Stanford Prison Experiment possesses an unnerving pulse from the first frame.
For many, the title will only be a loosely recognisable one, whilst to others it will be chillingly familiar. As a way of discovering the effects of the prison environment on the mind, Dr. Phillip Zimbargo (Billy Crudup) recruits a select group of paid test subjects to interact within a fabricated prison environment.
Nominating if they wanted to play the role of a prisoner or guard, the group are split into two sides judged by the flip of a coin (a scary factor to consider). After certain prisoners detected an uncomfortably full on approach from certain guards, things begin to get out of hand, resulting in severe psychological trauma and stress amongst inmates, as well as a complete loss of identity.
The most frightening aspect of the study is that it only lasted 6 days. What the film asks the audience, or at least states on the audiences behalf, is that context changes everything. When asked what you would do in that situation, answering honestly is an impossibility.
One does not know their own capabilities until they are thrown into a certain situation, which is a terrifying thought. For the guards, the power and control was too irresistible and consuming, which overthrew any sense of morality or human decency. The prisoners on the other hand, they had two options; bend or break.
The interaction between the young male cast is unnerving and tense – unrelentingly so. Frustration boils and discomfort escalates, rarely relinquishing as characters exploit their senses of entitlement and authority to the extreme whilst push the boundaries past their limits.
The way in which Zimbardo, a celebrity to many high school psychology students, is portrayed is surprisingly sour. The angry, maniacal depiction of the celebrated and otherwise respectable psychologist sheds a new light on not just the man himself, but the era and less ethical approach to research. This was a risk for Zimbardo, and he was willing to push the study to its absolute limits in order to get what he wanted, regardless of ethics and regulations.
The young cast is made up of several familiar faces that will no doubt grow to become even more familiar in years to come. The likes of Ezra Miller (We Need To Talk About Kevin), Tye Sheridan (Mud), Thomas Mann (Me and Earl & The Dying Girl), Keir Gilchrist (It Follows) and James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom) all shine on both sides of ‘the law’, offering various insights into the addictive elements of control and the invigorating temptation of resistance.
A picture that will slip under the radar of many all together, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a recommendation to anybody with a fascination for psychology or even just the most obscure and extreme examples of psychological research methodology from yesteryear.
With alterations in the film’s conclusion compared to factual events, the film examines both the process and overall intention of the experiment, whilst highlighting extreme and uncontrollable human behaviour depending on the context.
A frightening reflection of our own potential, this is a savage, sadistic and severe story with an important message that emerges at the other end.