stanford prison experiment

THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT – REVIEW – As part of a sociology experiment, a group of volunteer students are placed in a mock prison and what happens next – in the words of Buzzfeed – will amaze you.

Billy Crudup plays Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist who wants to study the relationship of power and obedience. A group of volunteers are vetted and then paid $15 a day to participate in a two week experiment. Half are dressed as guards the rest are arrested on fictitious crimes and go through the process of institutionalisation, being stripped of their clothes, their individuality and their names. They have to submit to the authority of the guards, who – with no experience or training and with a general dislike of authority – quickly come to enjoy their roles. Although the choosing of guards and prisoners is decided on a coin toss, the guards are actually told that they have been selected on the basis of their performance in the interviews.

As the psychologists look on from the back room, the experiment quickly begins to run amuck. The good humor of the first prisoners sours as the guards insist on being taken seriously and when they are not reprimanded for overstepping some of the set rules – such as those restricting physical violence – they continue to push the boundaries of what they are allowed to do, depriving the prisoners of sleep, putting them in the ‘hole’ (essentially a cupboard) and forcing them to do exercises. The experiment itself seems out of control on a number of level. Not only are the participants apparently losing all control and potentially damaging themselves and each other, but the experimenters on the outside  begin to lose all perspective.

The brilliance of the film is this second observation. The actual experiment became hugely influential when the findings of Zimbardo were published and seemed to confirm a pessimistic view of humanity further enforced by the Milgram obedience study, during which volunteers were asked to increase the voltage while an actor screamed in the next room. The idea is that given a slight change in circumstances we will lose our refined social identities and revert back to barbaric and violent oppressors or submissive, mindless victims. However, this view is skewed by the corrupt version of the experiment itself. The prison regime is nothing like a real prison with improvised solutions standing in for the real thing: the prisoners wear dresses because Zimbardo believes that will represent emasculation. The guards themselves base their identities on the sadistic prison guards in movies – particularly Cool Hand Luke – a decision which ironically is founded in their own dislike of authority. They assume that prison guards are brutal fascists and so they play with that. And also the prisoners don’t all react the same. Although there is a quick submission, there are also sudden acts of insubordination. One of the late substitutes sees the whole thing as illegitimate from the very get go and refuses to play along.

This is director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s third feature and shows a filmmaker at the height of his powers. He is sober and restrained and lets Tim Tabbott’s screenplay based on transcripts of the actual experiment play out. Whether the experiment actually has to say anything useful about power and submission is open to question, but the film putting the power of the experimenters into the equation certainly does.

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