I think The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the better moviegoing experiences I've had so far this year, and I think it will be a movie that could definitely spark some water cooler-y discussions among certain types of filmgoers. I should state right up front that the film's director, Kyle Alvarez, is a buddy of mine, and while I certainly plan to give my honest reaction here, it's worth stating for the record that I went in to the movie hoping to be impressed.
On one hand, the movie is small in scope -- it takes place over just a couple of days, in essentially one location. But I thought the film juggled quite a bit even given the hemmed-in nature of its concept. For starters, there are a ton of characters in this movie -- the cast is basically a who's who of young guys in Hollywood on the verge of breaking out -- and the number of different personalities and points of view that emerge throughout the course of the film's two hours made me curious to learn more about the lives of a lot of the characters beyond what was on screen.
But that, of course, would have been detrimental to what the film aims to accomplish, which is to situate viewers right in the middle of the harrowing prison experiment at Stanford in 1971 and give us a fly-on-the-wall look at events as they unfolded. (There's a great, jet-black laugh moment when the title card reading "Day 2" appears on screen, and the audience comes to understand how quickly things went awry here.) There's something subtly nifty about the movie's structure -- there isn't really a main character, and in fact, the movie constantly seems to be shifting focus among characters who either recede into the background for significant chunks or flat-out disappear from the storyline altogether. The effect this had on me was that I never really knew who the movie was asking me to identify with -- the scientists, the prisoners, or the guards. I think one of the biggest strengths of the movie is that it plays almost like a Rorschach test, and different viewers could easily come away with different takes on what it all means. On its surface, it's a docudrama about a real-life scientific study, but I think it also serves as an exploration of counterculture vs. establishment forces in the '70's, a Lord of the Flies-like examination of how certain situations can lead otherwise good people to torture their fellow men, an indictment of the contemporary U.S. prison system, a dramatization of the tensions between scientific experiment and ethics, even a critique of the arbitrariness of law and societal rules.
And I think it's to the movie's strength that it never explicates a lot of this, but brings it out through fully organic details. I loved how the majority of the guys in their initial interviews wanted to be prisoners rather than guards -- for men of that age, in that era, who would want to be one of the authority figures? And then it was fascinating to me that Dr. Zimbardo told the men who'd been selected as guards that they were chosen based on qualities that impressed the scientific team in their interviews, rather than a coin toss, effectively encouraging the guards by flattery that they EARNED their positions of superiority. This also set up what I thought was perhaps one of the best lines in the film, the acknowledgment that the only thing separating the guards from the prisoners was the flip of a coin -- isn't the movie making a pretty damning statement about how luck (i.e. the environments we're born into, societal factors of race & class, etc.) is in many ways the major factor separating ACTUAL guards from prisoners? There are a lot of insightful moments like this, that don't push the subtext too hard, but which encourage the audience to examine the cultural relevance of the story in whatever way makes sense to them. And tone throughout balances the horrific and the absurdly funny in a really pleasingly ironic and impactful way.
There is one structural/story problem, I feel, and it stems from a challenge many based-on-fact stories have -- when you set out to tell the story of the Stanford prison experiment, although you can embellish facts along the way (as I'm sure the filmmakers have), you're still tied to the overall arc of the historical event. (SLIGHT spoilers ahead about the end of the movie, though I'm not spoiling anything that you wouldn't get through a cursory glance through the wikipedia article on this event.) And while I thought the film did a wonderful job of showing how conditions gradually deteriorated over the days of the experiment (like how the guards on day one seem to be reading so obviously from a script, but as the days go by, they've clearly thrown that out the window), eventually the depictions of abuse start to feel repetitive. This is exacerbated by the fact that the experiment didn't really end with a bang -- it's not like someone died, or was even seriously damaged, physically or psychologically. Zimbardo just stopped the experiment. But I feel like the movie needed more of an explanation why he did, and why at THIS time -- the event which leads him to end things isn't appreciably worse than much of what's happened before (in fact, it's actually LESS abusive than a lot of what we saw earlier). So in some ways, I felt like I had experienced two acts of a movie that essentially just stopped before act three. Not sure how I myself would have solved this problem, but you have to imagine that the fictionalized version of this story would have kicked into a higher gear at this point, and I have to admit that, dramatically, that's an ending I'd have wanted to see.
But, as I said, I think there's a lot to chew on here -- especially speaking as someone who wasn't really familiar with the actual event the film is based on -- and I think I'd feel the same even without the friend connection.