‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’
Director:
Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Stars: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Held over a quickly aborted six days in the summer of 1971, the notorious Stanford prison experiment — in which 24 young men simulated prison life, with disastrous/telling results — has enjoyed a long after life, its (sometimes contested, possibly flawed) findings informing any case in which allegedly good people suddenly morph into heinous sociopaths. When Abu Ghraib occurred, it was regularly namechecked. More recently Jon Ronson revisited it in his book about social media mob rule, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” using it to address an era in which tech unlocks the jerks in all of us.

It has also, perhaps most shockingly of all, not been properly exploited by the movies. The German “Das Experiment,” and an American remake starring a tatted-up Adrien Brody, loosely retold the tale but added an over-the-top capper, as though the real one wasn’t nutty enough. The new, authentic-seeming “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” as its plain title attests, comes the closest. It’s a by-the-books approach — the official film that tells the official story, getting as close to the truth as it can muster, minus the occasional cryptic editorializing. 

It plainly lays out what’s known for sure: that psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) placed two dozen vetted young men in a simulation prison, divided randomly into inmates and guards. The guards, following the lead of the pseudonymously-named Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano), almost immediately turned abusive, using their power to push around and torture their charges. The real Archer even later claimed to be impersonating Strother Martin’s sadistic guard in “Cool Hand Luke, complete with good ol’ boy Southern accent. The test subjects are filled out by an ’80s Rat Pack-style gallery of who’s-who, from Ezra Miller to Tye Sheridan to Jack Kilmer to, eventually, even “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”’s Thomas Mann — all boys playing dress-up, acting on their precocious impulses. Meanwhile, Zimbardo, watching remotely, mostly refrained from tampering, which might have made his guards think it was OK to push things even farther.

Some have compared “The Stanford Prison Experiment” to “Compliance,” a voyeuristic exploration of audience implication where we’re intended to feel complicit in the atrocities we continue watching. That doesn’t really apply here, which is both a historical recreation of something that already happened and frankly not all that bothered with taking such a heavy stance. In development hell for over a decade, the project was at one point to be helmed by Christopher McQuarrie and others. Instead it was directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, last seen with the David Sedaris adaptation “C.O.G.” He knows how to ratchet up tension without getting showy, but his film — and Tim Talbott’s script — doesn’t have the strong view point to make it more than a noble recreation. 

The closest it comes to saying something dramatic is its portrayal of Zimbardo, repeatedly shown staring quietly at fuzzy black-and-white video of unspeakable horrors, too enraptured to interfere. (He did intervene twice, removing prisoners who had clearly suffered a mental break.) It’s a passive-aggressive take, strongly implying that the real villain is Zimbardo without actually saying that. But for the most part it holds back, allowing ideas to be teased out by viewers, who will debate it after. They won’t be debating the filmmaking or the presentation; they’ll simply be debating what has been debated since the experiment’s actions were made public. Apart from admiring some performances (Miller, Angarano and Crudup all stand out), it's little more than an audio-visual version of one of the incident's numerous non-fiction accounts. It’s a meat-and-potatoes approach that gets the job done but stops well short of burrowing into one’s skull.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge