Best thing you’ll see all week: The Stanford Prison Experiment

, | Movie reviews

Experimenter is at first about the Milgram experiments, in which subjects were tested for their willingness to electrically shock another person at the behest of an authority figure. The finding was basically that people will totally be dicks if they’re absolved of responsibility for their actions. Psychologist Stanley Milgram implied a connection to the Holocaust. The movie exaggerates Milgram’s findings, implying that almost everyone (“the vast majority,” the character says at one point) was willing to escalate the shocks to a life-threatening voltage. In reality, a third of the subjects refused to continue, and Experimenter eventually admits as much. Furthermore, to ratchet up dramatic tension, the movie implies the authority figure was unrelenting as the test subjects protested. But in reaction to protests during the actual tests, the authority figure escalated through four scripted responses. If the subject protested a fifth time, the experiment was halted.

As you might guess from the title, Experimenter is more concerned with Stanley Milgram himself, coolly portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard (Sarsgaard is so often the king of cool, which is why it’s so much fun seeing him lose his cool in Black Mass). Director Michael Almereyda can’t resist gimmicks like breaking the fourth wall, shooting scenes against obvious backdrops, montages detailing Milgram’s other experiments, and one of the most ridiculous beards ever captured on film. There is even a literal elephant in the room when Milgram draws parallels to fascism. “Perhaps our awareness is the first step in liberation,” Almereyda’s movie concludes ponderously.

Experimenter also considers the ethical implications of the stress inflicted on the test subjects. They weren’t actually shocking anyone. It was a ruse to test their willingness. The “victim” was unseen in another room, faking cries of pain. The subjects felt guilt, remorse, duress, and anguish to varying degrees before they were told it was all a ruse. Psych! Psych, indeed. Should a research psychologist concern himself with the well-being of his test subjects? Or do the findings justify the means? If you want to test whether someone will totally be a dick, do you have to be a dick yourself? Fair questions, all of which the audience will probably wonder without Experimenter’s explicit dialogue to that effect. The most compelling parts of the movie are the scenes of the experiment itself, watching the subjects grow increasingly uneasy. Thanks to Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, and Jim Gaffigan for the effectiveness of these scenes. They’re far better than the biopic in which they’re wrapped.

All of these things are expressed more viscerally and less intellectually in The Stanford Prison Experiment, so this is a review of that movie instead. It’s a more effective story about the same topics. As you might guess from the title, it’s about the experiment itself, another study of the willingness of people to be dicks. It similarly called into question the ethics of inflicting stress on test subjects. With confident direction from rookie director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and a pared down script by a former South Park writer named Tim Talbott, Stanford Prison Experiment takes a “just the facts, ma’am” approach. It presents what happened, how it happened, and even why it happened (Billy Cruddup plays research psychologist Philip Zimbardo as a hapless victim of his own hubris). It doesn’t need to preach. It doesn’t need to embellish. It doesn’t need to conjure up lurid thriller tropes like the 2010 movie based on the same experiments, called The Experiment, in which Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker bring a knife to a psychology fight. This Stanford Prison Experiment is true to its roots, basking in the hardware, the costumes, and the hairstyles of its 1971 setting. It trusts the experiment itself to sustain the movie. It trusts the actors’ light-hearted laughs to convey the absurdity of the early set-up and their performances to see it through to its conclusion.

The cast is an it-list of young male actors. Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Johnny Simmons, Thomas Mann, and Michael Angarano all demonstrate they’re not just pretty young faces. Put these kids in an ensemble, give them good material, and enjoy a tantalizing look at their careers to come. The real standout is Ezra Miller, previously seen as the eponymous Kevin who needs to be talked about in the wretched We Need To Talk About Kevin.

For two movies that use actual studies to make the same point — What did we learn from this and was it worth it? — The Stanford Prison Experiment is a far better movie than Experimenter. The only thing Experimenter has in its favor is the inspired casting of Kellan Lutz as William Shatner. Will someone please spin that into a full blown biopic?

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