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.