The Experiment, based on a real-life psychology experiment at Stanford University (The Stanford Prison Experiment), is a shocking film about people becoming roles. There are many deviations from the facts of the study, but its results are startlingly the same.
In The Experiment, a diverse group of men who responded to an advertisement offering $1000 a day for two weeks participation in an experimental study are subjected to a battery of psychological tests before twenty-five are selected and assigned the role of prisoner or guard. The study was being conducted by a private corporation. By the second day of The Experiment, the participants had identified with their assigned roles. The guards became authoritarian, then cruel, and finally sadistic by the time the experiment ends. Prisoners had become compliant, depressed, and defeated.
At first the prisoners were rebellious, however that was quickly disciplined out of most of them. When a particular inmate (Adrien Brody) attempts to get the guards to treat the prisoners as human beings, he becomes their principle target. The alpha guard (Forest Whitaker) quickly devolves into an intolerant, unsympathetic, cruel authority.
Everything occurring in the prison was being recorded and filmed, and the experimenters told the subjects that if things got out of control or if violence erupted, the experiment would end and they could all go home. However, ending the experiment early would result in loss of payment. A red light was to signify the end of the experiment within a half hour after the act(s) that brought about the premature conclusion.
Forest Whitaker, by day three “Psycho Guard,” looks reverently to the red light each time something that the audience thinks will end the experiment happens. Nothing. The violence and degradation escalate to the point that we, the audience, suspect that those cameras are non-operational. The guards believe that their actions are sanctioned by those conducting the experiment because they are not interrupted.
It is impossible to believe that within the first two days of the experiment, the subjects would wholly identify with their roles as either prisoners or guards. Viewers watch, fighting back disbelief, knowing that they wouldn’t succumb too quickly to what they know is just make-believe.
Read the details of the Stanford University Prison Experiment. In 1971, two dozen male college students were recruited by an offer to participate in a research study that would pay them the grand sum of $15 per day. By the second day, the roles had been assumed, the guards had become authoritarian, and the prisoners were beginning to show signs of breaking down. The experiment ended on the sixth day because the guards had become so sadistic; “Their boredom had driven them to ever more pornographic and degrading abuse of the prisoners,” reported Philip G. Zimbardo, architect of the Stanford Prison Experiment. (YouTube hosts a number of videos from and about The Stanford Prison Experiment.)
There have been many films that expose the barbarity of prisons and inhumane guards. Few have chronicled the psychological and emotional factors that are the building blocks of such institutions. Today’s parallel, of course, is Abu Ghraib. Many people, comfortably middle class or affluent, find it difficult to believe that a man’s character could change so radically by being placed in the “guard” position. While the Stanford study was in some ways flawed, the results illustrate how quickly the metamorphosis can occur. The conclusions of the Stanford experiment have been widely debated.
Both Forest Whitaker and Adrien Brody deliver performances that are multi-layered and riveting. Whitaker’s evolution from a forty-something mama’s boy to a despicable despot (hmmmm…had he ever played that role before?) is matched nuance for nuance by Brody’s performance as a recently unemployed social worker with the will to survive. They are supported by a capable cast that respectfully handles the dark material. The mystery is why this powerful film skipped theaters and went direct-to-DVD. Extra features are limited to previews.
Bottom Line: Would I buy/rent/stream The Experiment? Yes, it is a tense, sometimes sickening, exploration of human behavior that satisfies as much as shocks.