Movie review: Movie takes viewers inside "Stanford Prison Experiment"

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

The infamous Stanford prison experiment remains notorious some 40 years after it took place, and the new film reenactment (with consultation by the professor who conducted it) shows why.

In 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup of "Almost Famous") was commissioned by the U.S. Navy and Marines to study the affects of a prison scenario on both guards and prisoners.

After an initial screening, 24 male students were chosen (and paid) to play the randomly selected role of prisoner or guard. A basement in a university building was made into a makeshift prison. The "prisoners" were even mock-arrested for the sake of authenticity.

A jovial mood among the participants is short-lived, as guards begin almost immediately to move to dehumanize and subjugate the prisoners, who in turn respond with rebellion. The experiment quickly snowballs.

"The Stanford Prison Experiment" is sharply directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who does a fine a job of putting us the midst of events most only know from psychology textbooks.

Crudup's character serves mostly to guide the action - though Zimbardo himself gets lost in the experiment - but the transformation of the students is the real story. Fresh-faced Michael Angarano plays Christopher Archer, a student who takes a few too many cues on how to be a prison guard from "Cool Hand Luke." Ezra Miller ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower") plays a prisoner who struggles against efforts to break his will.

My chief critique is that the film is so focused on the experiment itself that we don't get much insight into who these students were before it started, so we see little of their transformation. Still, this is gripping and thought-provoking cinema.

"The Stanford Prison Experiment"

Opens Friday

3 stars (out of 4)