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Short Takes: The Stanford Prison Experiment

(Kyle Patrick Alvarez, U.S., 2015)

There are no direct references in The Stanford Prison Experiment to the tumultuous cultural upheavals that shook up many American college campuses between 1968 and 1972. It’s only by indirect cues that the film suggests the texture of the world outside the institutional hallway where most of its action occurs: haircuts, styles of dress, passing movie references, or generational catchphrases like the epithet—“fascist pig!”—an imprisoned student spits at his showboating, sadistic guard.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s third feature isn’t the first fiction film inspired by the notorious 1971 experiment in which students were paid to assume the roles of guards and prisoners in an elaborate simulation of prison life that quickly devolved into physical and mental abuse. But it’s the first to dramatize the study in its original campus setting, draw on primary records, and stage the action with exacting attention to period detail. The respected psychologist Philip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup as a monomaniac, took steps to ensure that “his prison” would resemble the real thing, and the same could be said of Alvarez’s film.

It’s an immersive, if not entirely factual, restaging of six days that were already, on several levels, theater. The fact that the film—which stumbles over its expository passages but makes fine use of its stellar ensemble cast—takes place within a single week and almost completely within one building both narrows its perspective and accounts for its tense, visceral power.