Much of the action takes place in barren 6-foot-wide hallway. The characters--seemingly normal and well-adjusted Stanford students recruited to participate in a landmark 1971 study about the psychology of imprisonment--take their role-playing as prisoner and guard to extremes, turning power-hungry, violent and occasionally sadistic. The "grown-ups," led by researcher Philip Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup), watch a live feed of the action from a nearby office and fail to stop the abuse--fueled by their own power trips and unchecked ambition.
None of the men or boys come off looking very good in the film, though director Kyle Patrick Alvarez does a masterful job humanizing them. And it’s impossible to watch without wondering how you’d react if parachuted into Zimbardo’s simulated prison. Would you stand up for yourself--or for the humanity of others? And can we really know until we’ve been there?
"One of the big questions this film deals with is, ‘Are we who we think we are?’" Crudup said when we sat down in Park City, Utah, this week to discuss the film. "This story talks about the ways we don’t fulfill our own moral capacity, and that what we think of as our true self is actually the product of many different situations, institutions, and places."
Crudup (Almost Famous) is excellent as Dr. Zimbardo, a man who so badly wants to affect positive change in the world--and have an impact as a psychologist--that he’s willing to let his study subjects endure psychological torture for what he perceives as a greater good. It isn’t until the sixth day, when his girlfriend and fellow researcher (played by Juno’s Olivia Thirlby) objects to the experiment’s direction, that he finally accepts the damage he’s doing.
Alvarez said he knew his film would challenge audiences, but he didn’t appreciate just how much. "It’s been much harder for people to watch than I expected it would be," he said. "One guy asked me, ‘Is this an experiment on the audience?’ What’s interesting to me is that no one actually gets physically hurt in the film. If people say it’s hard to watch, I hope it’s because of the truthfulness of this complicated situation and story."
Crudup added that he hopes critics and moviegoers "don’t confuse their desire to have the experiment end with their desire to have the movie end. I think what people experience as they watch this film is a strong desire to have the people in the movie stop doing what they’re doing."
It’s a claustrophobic movie at times, but by altering his camera angles and bringing some early humor to the movie, Alvarez keeps it from becoming suffocating. And he’s able to extract intense, memorable performances from his young ensemble cast, including 22-year-old Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Miller plays a prisoner who leaves the experiment early, and his failure to rally the other prisoners against the guards leads him to an emotional breaking point.
"My character is a sort of false revolutionary," Miller told me. "He’s coming from a place of self interest and is actually trying to exercise power over his fellow inmates. He’s trying to create a structure of power that will favor him, even though he claims to be fighting against an unfair power structure in the prison."
Michael Angarano (Cinemax’s The Knick) is another standout as a guard who seemingly takes great pleasure in seeing how much he can demean the prisoners before they revolt. On what would turn out to be the experiment’s final day, he pushes the psychological abuse even further, forcing them to simulate sex.
"What the experiment turned into was a competition of masculinity between all of these guys," Angarano told me. "It’s telling, I think, that where the experiment had to be stopped was when there was the ultimate stripping of masculinity, when the boys were feminized [by the forced sexual abuse]. That was essentially as far as it could have gone. That’s where they ended it and said, ‘No more.’"
If The Stanford Prison Experiment is a difficult film to watch at times, it was an even more challenging film to make. Producer Brent Emery began trying in 2002, and others in Hollywood had been interested in telling this story since the first publicity around the study in the 1970s. Alvarez, who adapted a David Sedaris short story for the 2013 indie film C.O.G., came on board the project three years ago, and said that previous attempts to bring the experiment to the screen were "bigger-scale films." (He declined to disclose his budget.) "My belief was that no matter how much you spend, the movie is still a bunch of guys in a hallway," he said. "There’s no getting around that."
The real Dr. Zimbardo, who was in the audience for the film’s Sundance premiere and spent some time on set during filming, said he loved the movie--even if the audience spends much of the film disliking him. During a Q&A after the premiere, he outlined what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.
"It’s not that the people who were guards had latent sadistic tendencies," he said, adding that most of his subjects were hippies and anti-war activists who didn’t want to be guards in the experiment (most hoped to be prisoners). "But once they put on the uniform… you become the character. That was the most amazing thing. The big message for all us is, where does our personal identity end and our role begin? As teacher, as manager, as parent, as doctor. We all play roles all the time. For some of us we lose that boundary. We become the role."