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The Stanford Prison Experiment review: An intense retelling of a world famous psychological experiment gone wrong.

Anyone familiar with modern psychology will recognize the title – The Stanford Prison Experiment. Heralded as a failed study of human control, power and ego, the experiment delved into the heads of its participants to see how they would react in an intense, highly volatile prison set-up. An interesting study, but how does it transfer to the big screen?

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Based on the novel penned by head professor Philip Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup), the film tells the story from the experiment’s conception to its failure of an ending. Zimbardo and his colleagues screen a number of candidates, with twenty-four young men chosen to take part. Split into two groups, each side takes on a role – either that of a prison officer or prisoner. While the ‘officers’ are in control of what happens within the prison (some empty rooms and a hallway in the college), they are told that they are not to physically harm any of the prisoners. Left to their own devices, Zimbardo and his team film what happens, keeping a close eye on the actions from both sides.

While the parties gingerly take on their roles, Prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller) decides to push the boundaries, testing the limits of the officers, almost baiting them to react to his comments. However, when the guards push back, and 8612 loses the support of his comrades, things quickly spiral downwards.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

What really helps The Stanford Prison Experiment are the spectacular performances from a lot of the cast. Miller, best known for We Need To Talk About Kevin, plays the mouthy, stubborn adolescent, exactly what you’d expect from him, whose bravado definitely isn’t permanent. He openly admits that he’d prefer to be a guard than a prisoner – how different the story would be if his wish came true. On the flip side of the coin (an ironic phrase given the way the roles were handed out), Angarano as ‘John Wayne’ Guard is, at times, terrifying. While he would’ve preferred to play a prisoner, as “Everyone hates guards”, the power of a uniform and a baton go straight to his head, leading to a tense face-off between himself and 8612. Supported by incredibly believable performances from their castmates (keep an eye out for Chris Sheffield‘s quiet yet powerful 2093), Miller et al. really bring the story to life – at times it’s hard to believe we’re not watching real footage.

While the performance standard is high, what lets the film down is the unnecessary, almost mushy undertone of the narrative involving Crudup‘s Zimbardo and Olivia Thirlby‘s Dr. Christina Maslach. Yes, while they were in a relationship ‘in real life’, the cutaways to intimate moments between the pair belittle the intensity of the previous scenes involving the experiment, giving the film a distracting sentimental feel.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

With that being said, The Stanford Prison Experiment holds its ground; it knows what it wants to be and tries hard to get there. Intense and, at times, uncomfortable to watch, everyone involved really throws themselves into their roles, with the audience quickly forgetting the characters actually have names and aren’t just a series of numbers. I suppose that’s exactly what Zimbardo wanted…

The Stanford Prison Experiment is in cinemas now.