In 1971, at the prestigious Stanford University, a group of young men were paid to participate in a study designed to observe the psychological effects of prison life.
The experiment didn't just focus on what it was like to be a prison inmate; half of the participants were randomly assigned to be guards, while the rest were their prisoners.
The experiment was supposed to last two weeks.
Things went so horribly wrong that the plug was pulled after only six days. Now there's another movie about it (a German movie was made about the study in 2001, and a 2010 take starred Forest Whitaker and Adrien Brody), and thankfully, this one is really good.
"The Stanford Prison Experiment" is a compelling story that is ripe for adaptation, but the film is elevated to even greater heights because of its ensemble of supremely talented young stars.
Every single actor featured on-screen is terrific, with "lead" prisoner Ezra Miller ("The Perks Of Being A Wallflower,""We Need To Talk About Kevin") and guard Michael Angarano ("Almost Famous,""Sky High") doing the best work of their careers and making a convincing case for being the best in the business for their age group.
Miller is the first prisoner to push back against the guards, and when the reality of the situation starts to set in, he starts to break. His descent into unease and madness is so believable it's actually hard to watch at times.
Angarano is horrifying as the alpha-male guard, embodying the "bad cop" persona (he literally dons a pair of Aviators and starts acting like John Wayne) and really running with it.
Billy Crudup is creepy and perfect as Dr. Zimbardo, viewing the experiment from the safety of his control room as the viewer is left to question his intentions. Does this experiment serve a scientific purpose, or is Zimbardo just some twisted voyeur taking pleasure in it all?
Like the study itself, "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is about power, control, and how far a man is willing to go when given the opportunity to take charge. In addition to exploring the limits (or lack thereof) of the human psyche, the film is also a quasi-indictment of the experiment itself, showcasing what went wrong every step of the way. Zimbardo is not given any sort of a pass by the filmmakers here, despite his pedigree.
Most of the film showcases the experiment itself, and we watch these young men go from eager participants ready to make a quick buck to desperate souls who would do anything to make it all stop.
In the pre-study candidate interviews, nobody wanted to be a guard ... being a prisoner seemed like much less work. Most completed the interview with a smile, as if they were about to embark on a free two-week vacation. They arrive and are immediately stripped of every aspect of their identity, and it doesn't take long to realize this is far from a getaway.
Once the guards start taking themselves too seriously, it's all downhill from there, and it becomes of a question of how far will they take it. Where's the moral line in the sand?
It would be a disservice not to mention how wonderfully shot and composed the film is, too. The tight camerawork, featuring mostly close-ups, ensures the audience is just as confined and uncomfortable as the film's subjects.
The only issue with the film is its ending. Everything that comes before it is so raw and powerful that the final stretch in which the writer attempts to spoon-feed the audience the "message" of the film and its significance is completely out of place. The suffering on display, Angarano and Miller's extreme reactions, and the moral ambiguity of Zimbardo speak for themselves.
"The Stanford Prison Experiment" is a film that implants itself firmly in your mind and won't let go. It's an unsettling, disturbing watch that has the power to make you question humankind.
Watch the trailer below.
"The Stanford Prison Experiment" opens in select theaters July 17 and hits VOD services July 24.