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Stanford Prison Experiment, The

MPI Home Video // R // November 17, 2015
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 1, 2016 | E-mail the Author
In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo began what he believed would be a two-week experiment involving 24 test subjects. The goal was to investigate the source of abusive behavior in prisons, with 12 subjects playing the guards and 12 subjects playing the prisoners. Within only six days, Zimbardo ended the experiment after his future wife Christina Maslach took issue with Zimbardo's moral culpability in letting it continue. Within only 24 hours, the relationship between the guards and prisoners had become toxic, with the guards' willingness to embrace their authority to torment and torture the prisoners spiraling out of control. Maslach correctly identified that Zimbardo was falling into the same pattern, allowing the experiment to continue despite the physical and mental anguish of some of the test subjects simply because he believed he had control over it.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a reasonably engaging dramatic recreation of the experiment, featuring large group of talented young actors playing the test subjects. There is nothing wrong with it, yet on the other hand, it joins the ranks of 2015 films like Straight Outta Compton and The Big Short, which are well-performed and handsomely directed, but seem to offer little additional insight into their subject matter beyond reminding people, through the use of famous and familiar faces, that these things happened. There should be more point to dramatizing something than the fact that it has yet to be dramatized, and it's not entirely clear if writer Tim Talbott or director Kyle Patrick Alvarez know what that reason is.

The good first: one of the primary prisoners, Daniel Culp -- referred to by his prison number of 8612 once he is "inside" -- is played by Ezra Miller, best known for 2011's devastating masterpiece We Need to Talk About Kevin. Here, he's almost the opposite of that character, a bright and seemingly optimistic young man who at first shrugs off things like his discomfort at being forced to strip in front of the "guards" to put on his prison outfit, but is trying to rally his fellow inmates to break out just 24 hours later. Miller has a sincerity that makes his descent into psychological anguish deeply compelling, and even among a group of his contemporaries, there's a magnetism to his rebelliousness that gives Stanford early electricity. His primary compatriot is Peter Mitchell, aka "819" (Tye Sheridan), who is equally frustrated but less proactive. One of the best examples of the experiment's psychological nuance comes when Daniel's inaction -- one so simple and almost certainly unintentional -- has a devastating effect on Peter.

Unfortunately for the film, following the true story inevitably means that the focus shifts away from Daniel and over to Zimbardo and the experiment as a whole. Given that Zimbardo's problem is that he is unable to step away from the experiment, realize that he's become over-involved, the challenge for the filmmakers is finding a way to dramatize that inaction without the film becoming monotonous. Although the prisoners remain compelling, and Crudup is reliably engaging, too much of the movie's second half is dominated by one of the guards, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano). On the first day of the experiment, Archer brings up a prison movie with a particularly nasty guard. Although the artifice of the persona that Archer puts on inside the prison may be intentionally visible, Angarano struggles to make Archer seem more threatening than smarmy. His abuse of several prisoners comes off as canned, almost cliche, with only the emotional reactions of the prisoner subjects (which also include Johnny Simmons and James Frecheville) to help bring the film back down from the brink of silliness.

As is customary with true stories, The Stanford Prison Experiment ends with on-screen text, talking about Dr. Zimbardo and his continued writing, lectures, and research into the susceptibility of people to turning into abusers and manipulators in a prison setting. The information underlines that problem: what is it that makes dramatizing the events so special if we can learn some of the same lessons about power from Zimbardo himself, through his writing or otherwise? There is certainly nothing wrong with Stanford as a movie, which has a vividness and scope that feels authentic even on a limited budget, and those performances are well worth seeing. Yet, Stanford feels as if its insight has already been conveyed before the movie even begins, a movie that exists to document something that was being documented in the first place.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of those kinds of movies that can't easily be summarized in a single image, so it's no surprise that Crudup and the title are the headliners on this DVD artwork, which features a subdued tan-and-magenta color palette. As with all of IFC's releases through MPI, the one-disc release is packaged in an eco-friendly transparent Amaray case (less plastic, no holes), and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen, The Stanford Prison Experiment looks very strong on IFC's DVD release. There is a degree of softness to the picture, but in close-ups, fine detail is impressive. Dark scenes generally look decent, without any aggressive instances of banding or artifacts, and the film's muted color palette looks fine on the disc. Sound is a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which ends up mostly being about ambiance, the authentic acoustics of being trapped in the makeshift prison and its cells. A naturalistic echo creates a claustrophobic effect, but does not get in the way of the clarity of the dialogue and sound effects. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
The primary extra included here is an audio commentary by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Although it's kind of a shame that Dr. Philip Zimbardo or screenwriter Tim Talbott weren't around to accompany Alvarez on this track, Alvarez is quite excited and engaged with the idea of discussing the film. He rushes back and forth through on-the-day anecdotes to script revisions to ideas for certain scenes and shots and then back again. Although I can't say this track stands out among commentaries in general, it is a very enthusiastic and fast-moving track that should please those who want to know more about the production.

Two short video featurettes are also offered. "Bringing to Life The Stanford Prison Experiment" (9:38) is your standard making-of featurette, with interviews from the cast and crew interspersed with B-roll and clips from the film. As far as these things go, it's not particularly remarkable, but there is an edge in that the subjects have the freedom to talk about not just the usual movie material, but the experiment itself, both in terms of what they found interesting or resonant, but also developing a movie version of it that retained the truth of it. Disappointingly, despite the presence of the real Dr. Philip Zimbardo in the first featurette, "The Psychology Behind The Stanford Prison Experiment" (2:47) plays mostly like an even more condensed version of that featurette instead of getting a bit of the backstory about the experiment itself.

Trailers for Welcome to New York, Match, Jenny's Wedding, and Time Out of Mind play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for The Stanford Prison Experiment is also included.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a decent movie that doesn't quite justify the effort that has gone into it. It works best as a showcase for most of the young actors in its cast, especially Ezra Miller. Rent it.

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