‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’: Chilling look back will get you thinking

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Adecade and a half after “Almost Famous,” I’m still not sure why Billy Crudup didn’t become an A-list Movie Star. It’s definitely not for lack of chops.

In the chilling and conversation-provoking “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” Crudup delivers his usual excellent work, this time dramatizing the real-life Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who conducted one of the most famous behavioral experiments of the 20th century.

In the summer of 1971, Zimbardo and a small team of associates fashioned a mock prison in the basement of a Stanford academic building, with 12 students paid $15 a day to play prisoners, and 12 others paid the same to take on the roles of prison guards.

The “guards” were given uniforms, nightsticks and sunglasses to convey an image of authority and control. The “prisoners” were assigned numbers, made to wear smocks and had a chain fastened around one leg.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbott have adhered closely to the published histories and archival footage of the experiment — and the result is one of the most effectively disturbing movies of the year. We watch how quickly the guards turn abusive, and how readily most of the prisoners succumb to treatment that far exceeds the written rules, and we wonder how WE would behave in the same situation.

Crudup’s Zimbardo is a charismatic, ambitious academic who is thrilled when a guard who calls himself John Wayne (Michael Angarano) actually starts emulating another actor: Strother Martin in “Cool Hand Luke.” John Wayne tells his fellow guards he’s just playing a character, but he’s clearly enjoying himself as he taunts the prisoners, forces them to perform endless calisthenics as punishment for perceived disrespect, and tosses troublemakers into “The Hole,” e.g., a tiny dark closet.

Within two days, things have deteriorated to the point where some inmates are talking about staging a coup, while the guards escalate their abuse of the prisoners — hogtying them, forcing them to defecate in buckets in their “cells,” rousting them in the middle of the night to verbally abuse them, refusing their requests for personal items such as prescription glasses or pills.

Once the experiment starts, director Alvarez confines the story to the hallways and rooms of the “prison” and the offices where Zimbardo and his team monitor the proceedings. The result is a suitably claustrophobic, creepy vibe; even as we’re stunned at how quickly the guards and prisoners disappear into their assigned roles, we can understand how the experiment becomes “real” to them. These young men can tell Dr. Zimbardo to take his $15 a day and shove it at any time — but instead they tearfully plead their cases at “parole hearings,” submit to counseling from a priest who asks them if they have lawyers and if they have a plan for getting out of prison, and start referring to themselves by the numbers on their uniforms.

The experiment isn’t even a week old when the prisoners’ parents visit them, under the watchful eyes of the guards. Even the parents seem to quickly buy into the scenario — asking their boys how they’re getting along with their fellow inmates, how they’re holding up, if they’re being mistreated. Not a one of them says, “This is ridiculous, you’re coming home right now.”

Olivia Thirlby shines as Zimbardo’s girlfriend Christina, who shows up a few days into the experiment and is stunned by what has transpired. (The real-life Christina and Philip are married to this day.) Nelsan Ellis gives a commanding performance as a friend of Zimbardo’s who did hard time in San Quentin and takes on the role of a member of the parole board, berating an inmate who pleads for an early release.

For decades, psychologists have debated the merits of Zimbardo’s experiment. Did he cross the line and allow his subjects to be abused? Did he recognize HE was becoming a part of his own study?

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is the kind of movie that raises as many questions as it answers. It’s also the kind of film where you want to budget some time for discussion afterward. You won’t be able to shake this one off easily.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

IFC Films presents a film directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and written by Tim Talbott, based on the book “The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo. Running time: 122 minutes. Rated R (for language including abusive behavior and some sexual references). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.

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