Would you rather be a prisoner, or a guard? That’s the question asked in the trailer for The Stanford Prison Experiment, IFC Film’s Sundance-award-winning movie from director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. The film is a dramatization of the titular event, Philip Zimbardo’s highly influential experiment into the effects of environment on human psychology, and also on whether decades of Psych 101 students could be roused out of boredom-induced sleep by a sufficiently lurid tale of evil unleashed.
In 1971, Zimbardo and his colleagues transformed the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Building into a makeshift prison, staffed with college students as the prisoners and guards. Acting as the fictitious jail’s superintendent, Zimbardo observed his subjects as they sank into the roles of correctional officers, submissive prisoners, and, in one case, Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke. The experiment was originally scheduled to run for two weeks, but was canceled prematurely after Zimbardo’s future wife, Christina Maslach, protested the increasingly inhuman conditions on display.
Billy Crudup plays Zimbardo in the film, watching over the events with cold detachment, while Olivia Thirlby plays the compassionate Maslach. The rest of the young cast seems game to scream out whatever the script demands of them, pounding on fake bars and dispensing their best theatrical drawls. It all looks a little artificially heightened and dramatic, but hey—it’s not like Zimbardo hasn’t been doing the exact same thing with this story for the last 40 years.