The Stanford Prison Experiment review: what could possibly go wrong?

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's retelling of the infamous 1971 psychological experiment by Philip Zimbardo stays true to the original events to chilling effect

Clever, ominous and discombobulating: Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment

Film Title: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Logan Miller, Nelsan Ellis, Ki Hong Lee, Tye Sheridan, Miles Heizer, Michael Angarano, Jack Kilmer, Nicholas Braun

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 122 min

Thu, Jun 9, 2016, 11:11


It begins with an innocuous looking advertisement. “Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 beginning Aug 14. For further information & applications, come to 248, Jordan Hall, Stanford U.” It’s the summer of 1971 and psychology professor Philip Zimbardo is seeking volunteers for what would become of the social sciences’ most infamous experiments.

The vetting process seems to go smoothly. The 24 students selected are bright, healthy, well-adjusted young chaps who are mostly interested in earning some money and who, almost without exception, are hoping to get assigned to be a prisoner, rather than a guard because it “sounds like less work”.

Basement rooms vacated for the summer will serve as the jail and will be continuously monitored by Zimbardo and his team. Physical violence is strictly forbidden.

What could possibly go wrong?

Just hours into the simulation, one guard (Michael Angarano) is pointedly channelling Strother Martin’s Captain from Cool Hand Luke, as he demands jumping jacks and push-ups from the unfortunate ‘inmates’.

Within 10 hours, one of the prisoners – all of whom have been stripped and given dress-style uniforms and hair coverings – signs his letter home as ‘Sincerely, Prisoner 2093’. Less than a day has passed when the guards first get violent and a riot ensues.

Zimbardo’s experiment has inspired any number of films, plays, books and TV specials over the years, but Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s starry debut feature is easily, give or take some exposition, the most historically accurate (Zimbardo was an adviser on the movie) - and thus the most chilling re-telling.

Bad timing?
It is rather unfortunate timing that the film – winner of the Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival – is released during a week when the titular Ivy League campus is in the news for all the wrong reasons. During Zimbardo’s vetting procedure students are asked: “Have to ever given into a violent impulse, like domestic violence, rape or incest?” “No,” snorts one (Gavin Chan) incredulously: “I go to Stanford.”

Prepare for dread: the mounting tension of Tim Talbott’s cleverly constructed screenplay is complimented by Andrew Hewitt’s pulsing, ominous score and the director’s discombobulating use of dramatic pacing.

Even masked by the anonymity of prisoner and guard designations, this is an actor’s film, and more precisely an ensemble film. Crudup’s Zimbardo shifts from ruthlessness to panic, but that shift isn’t nearly as marked as what we observe among his subjects.

- The Stanford Prison Experiment is available on digital platforms from June 13th, 2016