Sometimes a project that’s been batting around finds its moment, and that’s assuredly the case with Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s Sundance-honored “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Working from a screenplay begun by Tim Talbott in 2003, Alvarez impeccably dramatizes Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford University experiment in which twenty-four male students volunteered to play guards and prisoners and explore the roots of abuse in the penal system. (Talbott had access to hours of grainy video as well as Zimbardo and his logbooks.) Suffice it to say, things escalate into rank sadism much faster than anyone had thought they would. There’s more of a pulse here than most “true-life” tales and thriller turns chiller quickly. “Lord of the Flies” but a distant echo, the pitched claustrophobia of “The Stanford Prison Experiment” ratchets up brutality toward outright insanity with admirable precision and authority. What are the wages of impunity? Abu Ghraib? Guantanamo? Michael Brown? Walter Scott? Sandra Bland? Oh, the inhumanity. But the wondrously humane performances, including Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, are superlative, including Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Keir Gilchrist and Thomas Mann. 122m. (Ray Pride)
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” opens at Landmark Century and other theaters, Friday, July 31 and is available on VOD.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.