Review: At Stanford, dicey experiment goes wrong fast

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is indeed about the Stanford prison experiment and it doesn’t exactly shine a kind light on the human spirit.

Make that the male human spirit, because the sole female in the film is also pretty much the only voice of reason. Then again, she’s also the only person who has an outside perspective on the experiment, so she’s never sucked into its weird vortex of cruelty.

In 1971, a Stanford psychology professor named Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) recruited 24 male Stanford students — by definition high achievers — for an experiment. He transformed part of a school building into a jail setting, with cells and a “hole” for solitary confinement, and then randomly assigned 12 students as guards and 12 as prisoners.

The results were immediate and devastating. Many of the guards took to bullying, many of the prisoners wilted into compliance. Those prisoners who resisted or complained were thrown into solitary (a closet) or simply thrown by the billy club-carrying guards.

It was a roaring success in terms of achieving results. Unfortunately, Zimbardo himself and his assistants also got caught up in the simulation, becoming gods who could offer release or order crackdowns. When Zimbardo’s fiancee (Olivia Thirlby) drops by and witnesses what’s going on, she’s both appalled and frightened.

This is pressure cooker stuff and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez is lucky to have some of the finest young actors around to run through the grinder. Michael Angarano makes for a dastardly guard and Ezra Miller shines as the most rebellious prisoner, but Tye Sheridan, Thomas Mann, Jack Kilmer, Miles Heizer, Moises Arias and many others all add spark and shading.

Needless to say, this is not an uplifting movie, and its progress can be grueling. But it has a lot to say about how we let roles define us, how fragile personalities are and how context shapes reality. And about the limits of human experimentation.

‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’


Rated R for language including abusive behavior and some sexual references

Running time: 122 minutes