Stanford, 1971.  Professor Philip Zimbardo, along with his aides are flipping coins to decide the fates of the young men who have volunteered for an experiment meant to observe and record human behavior within a mock prison environment.  Two sides of a coin, two roles: one earns you a spot among the ranks of the correctional officers, the other, lands you in a dress and nightcap as you assume the role of prisoner.  What happens next, is of historic magnitude.

Very few psychological studies have had the ability to transcend the the academic world into an active place among the public conscious, but the Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the few exceptions.

Each Sundance festival brings with it a fair share of good, truly memorable films, but sometimes the filmmaker’s quest for perfection has them looking much like Ahab in search of his mythic whale.  But with Stanford Prison Experiment, Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez has given us the perfect film.

It’s a cinematic masterpiece that while small in scope, is nonetheless an extremely moving and disturbing portrait of human behavior and tendency towards violence.  The film’s script is taken almost entirely from the actual audio/video recordings of the ordinal 1971 experiment, and takes place on a set that was purportedly an inch for inch representation of the original experiment space at Stanford giving both actors and crew ample opportunity to capture and create the most realistic of atmospheres.

Those worried about historical accuracy would be good to note that though both Stanford and Zimbardo approved of this film, at no point does Alvarez’s work try to shy away from the moral and ethical implications this experiment had, at times even calling in to question the competency of the experiment’s masterminds themselves.


The experience of watching Stanford Prison Experiment is one which mirrors that of the characters on screen.  The passage of time becomes blurred and confused, and though the 6 days of the experiment unfold slowly, the microcosm within each day explodes and escalates at an alarming rate.  By the time a block of bold white text alerts the viewers to the arrival of Day 2, one can not help but laugh, not because there is anything inherently funny about this, but because the audience, now stricken with anxiety, is uncertain if they themselves can remain passive observers to the unfolding events before them.

Were this any other film, the performance given forth by Billy Crudup—who plays Prof. Zimbardo— would be stirring up all sorts of buzz around the film world. However, Stanford Prison Experiment has a curious quality to it.  In most films, Crudup would only be pitting his well honed acting chops against that of a small handful of fellow actors, but with this film, Crudup’s performance is drowned out by the captivating performances of the other 24 leads in this film.  Best acting ensemble awards were made specifically for films like this.  There is not one single weak link in this chain of incredible performers.

From beginning to end, The Stanford Prison Experience is an intriguing psychological drama, that shakes you to your very core and bends you to its mercy.  A must see for purveyors and lovers of film alike, and not just one of the best films of the year, one of the best films of the decade.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is in Cinemas 10th June, on digital 13th June and DVD and Blu-Ray 27th June