Where’s that “safe word” when you need it? Male Stanford students, who participated in a daring piece of psychological research in 1971, thought the “contracts” they had with that academic institution guaranteed them a way out at any time. But as The Stanford Prison Experiment, a film based on those events, demonstrates, the study took on a life of its own, careening off its grid of protection and guidelines. It’s both mesmerizing and disturbing viewing.
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the movie begins with the recruitment of 18 students – most of whom signed on because of the $15 daily pay rate – who’d give up two weeks of their life to participate.
The force behind the study is psychologist Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) – what transpired would later be included in his book The Lucifer Effect – who wants to see how otherwise normal individuals might be affected by prison confinement, an experience antithetical to the Uranian freedom urge. Physically, the jail consists of contiguous classrooms and a hallway in the Stanford basement. Coin tosses by Zimbardo’s team (including James Wolk, Gaius Charles, and an unrecognizably fierce Nelsan Ellis as an ex-con who intimately knows the prison world) decide who become “guards” and who become “prisoners.”
Given that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely – we’re in a simulated Plutonic, control-freak Underworld – it’s no surprise that the men who were designated as guards began to embrace the gate-keeper mentality more radically than anyone – especially the student-prisoners – may have expected.
As if to hammer the power-wielding theme home, Zimbardo, in a telling moment, responds to a woman who addresses him as Mr. Zimbardo. “Dr. Zimbardo,” he corrects her. The guy running the whole shebang knows what incendiary confrontations might occur between the guard “haves” – each must be addressed as “Mr. Correctional Officer” – and the prisoner “have-nots.” But he seems woefully unconscious of his own pompous hierarchical behavior.
In short order, the gap that separates the two role-playing groups gets disturbingly wider. Guards wear uniforms and shades and start getting a bit too hands-on with their billy clubs. In contrast, the prisoners are made to wear garb that’s feminized and emasculating, and they risk both lock-up in a tiny utility closet and the loss of their bedding for the slightest infraction. Abuse of power and victimization begin to ooze. You can almost hear Zimbardo, who watches the proceedings on a monitor with a Svengali-like glint in his eye, smack his lips as the prisoners experience “a loss of freedom realistically and symbolically.”
The young, talented cast – among them, Ezra Miller, Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, Nicholas Braun, Michael Angarano, Ki Hong Lee, Tye Sheridan and Chris Sheffield – disappear into their roles, as incidents of defiance and breakdowns proliferate. Prison life is Saturnine – highly organized, structured and strictly rule-abiding – but the movie adds a Neptunian layer of blurred identities and boundaries that creates a scarily deep groove in the students’ psyches.
Only when sexual abuse occurs does Zimbardo, who had ignored the warnings of his psychologist-girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby), shut down the study. End credits reveal he went on to devote his professional energies to studying the psychology of authority and abuse of power.
The Stanford experiment ended after only six days. The effects of this powerful movie – which also deserves every accolade as a lesson in getting a handle on the bully mindset – lasts much longer.
Archetypes: Prisoner. Guard. Freedom. Rules. Confinement. Control.
Astrology Archetypes: ♄ ♅ ♆ ♇ (Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto)