Spend a few days at a film festival and the movies start talking to each other. Sometimes, it’s just a simple overlap in theme, subject matter, or setting—the way, for example, that a screwball comedy like Mistress America can faintly resemble an earnest melodrama like Ten Thousand Saints, if only by virtue of both being about surrogate siblings. Other times, one film can play like a rebuttal to another, making an opposite point about the same subject. It’s all a happy accident, assumedly, with the context created by writers, like myself, looking for easy ways to transition among wildly different films. But I do have to wonder if the programmers don’t sometimes intentionally organize the schedule around common themes or related creative gestations. Why else but for ease of conversational grouping would Sundance premiere new films by Joe Swanberg and Kris Swanberg within hours of each other? Well, maybe that’s to accommodate the timetable of the married filmmakers. Bad example.
Here’s a better one: Yesterday, I was able to consecutively catch two films featuring “experiment” in their title, both about famous psychological research studies conducted in mid-century academia. The better of these inadvertent companion pieces was The Stanford Prison Experiment (Grade: B+), a gripping dramatization of the infamous incident. In 1971, a group of students were paid to participate in a study designed to observe the psychological effects of working or residing inside a penitentiary. Half the participants were assigned the role of guard, the other of prisoner; they were to spend two weeks in the basement of a lecture hall, which had been converted to a makeshift, simulation prison. Things escalated quickly. Six days later, the experiment was aborted.
Several films have already been made about the Stanford Prison Experiment, and those intimately familiar with how it went down—the internalization of roles, the abuse, the refusal of those organizing the study to pull the plug when it quickly got out of hand—won’t be shocked by the details. But there’s still a queasy power to seeing the events reenacted with such procedural precision, day by day, blow by (literal) blow. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who appeared at Sundance in 2013 with the excellent David Sedaris adaptation C.O.G., assembles an across-the-board terrific ensemble of young stars to play the students. The challenge of this material is making it feel psychologically credible; though all of this really happened, it would still seem contrived without actors capable of selling how these young men could adapt so quickly to the parts they were playing. Everyone comes through, from Ezra Miller as the first “prisoner” to crack under the pressure to Michael Angarano as the swaggering head “guard,” who takes a quick, sadistic shine to authority.
The Stanford Prison Experiment unfolds with mounting dread, putting its audience in the same position as the researchers themselves: We watch with a mixture of fascination and unease as the group dynamics solidify. There’s a certain black humor to the situation (Alvarez uses the belated arrival of a “Day 2” title card to underline how fast things got fucked), but also a charge of real-world resonance, extending beyond the boundaries of the experiment depicted to more ugly examples of group think and abuse of power. The film stumbles only in its backstretch, when the focus shifts from the kids to the head researcher, Dr. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), who becomes a part of his own experiment. The closing rush to explain the significance of what happened is completely unnecessary; the ugly spectacle of college kids stripping other college kids naked, in a humiliating show of dominance, speaks disturbing volumes.
The study depicted in Experimenter (Grade: B-) is just as controversial but less theatrical: A decade before Stanford started and aborted its own little autopsy of human behavior, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, eventually rocking some unflattering facial hair) tested people’s willingness to obey authority by instructing volunteers to administer electric shocks to strangers in another room. The first half of Michael Almereyda’s film is devoted to this landmark study, and for a brief, thrilling while, it appears as though the movie will ignore the researcher’s life in favor of his fascinating work. (The parallels to Nazi Germany are made explicit rather than implicit here.) Alas, Experimenter eventually shifts to a more traditional biopic approach, albeit without leaning too heavily on the details of Milgram’s personal life (probably because they aren’t of great interest). On its margins, at least, the film proves conceptually adventurous: Almereyda (Hamlet, Nadja) includes eccentric/surreal touches like a literal elephant in the room, a monochromatic expression of Milgram’s domestic life, and scenes of Sarsgaard breaking the fourth wall to tell his character’s story. Experimenter is vibrantly directed, even if it does often resemble a glorified Wikipedia page.
If the two experiment films complemented one another nicely, a subsequent back-to-back pairing caused some serious whiplash. The documentary Pervert Park (Grade: B+), from married filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors, performs an act of brave and unpopular advocacy, granting a voice to society’s most detested: a group of sex offenders, all convicted for transgressions involving children. Without judgment or sentimentality, the filmmakers embed themselves in the Florida trailer-park community of these pariahs, coaxing candid and confessional interviews from each. In its unforced, mostly objective way, Pervert Park dares to provoke empathy for people who have abandoned all defensive rationales for their behavior, and who most of the world would rather just disappear forever. If forgiveness is impossible, maybe understanding is possible.
How should one chase such a sensitive, intelligent treatment of a tough topic? The answer is probably not to seek Eli Roth’s take on related issues. Knock Knock (Grade: B-) is a typical affront to good taste from the Hostel director, who here has waded into the ethically choppy waters of sexual entrapment. Keanu Reeves plays a family man who innocently takes in a pair of flirtatious, indeterminately aged women one dark and rainy night, only to promptly regret the decision. As in Hostel, there’s a stench of misogyny to this setup, which equates the advances of beautiful women to grave danger, and Roth’s subsequent attempts to position his familiar genre scenario as a feminist revenge story are deeply confused. That said, this is, by a country mile, the writer-director’s best movie—thanks in no small part to a trifecta of unhinged performances, with Reeves especially funny as a man fighting both temptation and the dire consequences of his weak will. Roth, too, shows greater formal ingenuity than he ever has before, turning the film’s more-or-less-single setting into a labyrinth of blind corners. He’s made a sick joke of a home-invasion comedy, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t chuckle through its cartoon offenses—even if doing so felt a little wrong in the wake of Pervert Park.
As if to find the middle ground between these two festival extremes, I ended my penultimate day in Park City with a lineup anomaly: a midnight documentary. The Nightmare (Grade: B/B+) finds director Rodney Ascher applying the basic, anecdotal strategy of his Room 237 to the terrifying topic of sleep paralysis. Here, instead of expounding on their theories about The Shining, eight interviewees recount their frightening, waking-dream hallucinations. Ascher, in turn, doesn’t manipulate film footage, but shoots some of his own: Like horror’s answer to Errol Morris, he recreates the described nightmares of his subjects, and the resulting set-pieces—involving shadow specters, alien-like demons, and other spooky shit—are as scary as anything in a fictional horror movie. The Nightmare isn’t the most comprehensive documentary; it consults no experts and never attempts a clear explanation of the phenomenon it explores. But there’s no denying the sway it held over the audience at the premiere; a quiver of collective alarm rippled through the crowd as one subject explained that he actually passed his sleep paralysis to a suggestive friend just by describing it. If one could have drawn a word balloon over all our heads, it might have read, “Oh shit.” Just try to find a correlative sensation anywhere else at the festival.