THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT [Edinburgh Film Festival]

PrintE-mail Written by Andrew Marshall

In 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment whereby a prison environment was simulated, with one set of students assigned to be prisoners and another taking on the role of guards, having no idea just how much of an equal success and failure it would be.

The film captures well the escalation of the events as faithfully as the confines of a two-hour narrative will allow, and its ensemble cast of largely unknown young actors convincingly portray the swift descent into base behaviour. Both prisoners and guards at first treat it like a game, but quickly begin to assimilate into the roles they have been assigned. Guards in real prisons have higher authorities to answer to should their behaviour become too extreme, but once the Stanford guards realise there will be no consequences for anything they do, their actions escalate with an alarming inventiveness. The speed with which the psychological abuse the guards inflict upon the prisoners intensifies becomes truly apparent when after a lengthy sequence of humiliation and degradation, a caption appears reading “Day 2”.

That the film largely follows the real-life events makes for difficult viewing, both from watching the psychological abuse inflicted and also wondering at how people could either perpetrate such acts or allow their infliction upon each other. The film becomes a frustrating watch once the flaws in the experiment’s validity become apparent, most notably in Zimbardo not only observing the experiment, but also participating in it in the role of prison superintendent. In doing so, he influences the progression of events and thus taints its development and invalidates any conclusions that can be taken from it. You’d have thought that as a professor at a respected university this is an important detail that would have occurred to him.

To even refer to it as an experiment is something of a misnomer, as Zimbardo is not testing a specific hypothesis but merely observing a situation. Drunk on the absolute power he has assigned himself, he ignores the potential danger of the contentions in favour of waiting to see how they will further degrade; practically giving himself a hard-on with the unexpected intensity of the microcosmic animal factory he has created. You begin to wonder just how long it will take him to realise the unethical and immoral implications of what he is wilfully allowing to happen.

Like the experiment itself, the film is an insightful and unnerving exploration into the darker traits of human nature, but also like the experiment it goes on long after it’s established all that it set out to.

THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT / CERT: TBA / DIRECTOR: KYLE PATRICK ALVAREZ / SCREENPLAY: TIM TALBOTT / STARRING: BILLY CRUDUP, EZRA MILLER, MICHAEL ANGARANO, THOMAS MANN, NELSAN ELLIS, TYE SHERIDAN / RELEASE DATE: TBA

Expected Rating: 7 out of 10
Actual Rating:


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