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'The Stanford Prison Experiment' review: A masterful re-enaction

"The Stanford Prison Experiment" takes a docudrama approach to the 1971 social experiment. Credit: Spencer Shwetz

The psychological study dramatized in Kyle Patrick Alvarez's film "The Stanford Prison Experiment" was conducted in 1971 by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who split 24 Stanford University students into guards and prisoners, then put them in a makeshift prison in a school basement. Within a few hours the subjects had essentially become their roles; within a few days the basement had become a petri dish teeming with cruelty, despair, abuse and sexualized humiliation. To this day, the experiment remains a byword for many things: questionable ethics, the frightening pliability of reality and, most of all, the ugliness of human nature.

As one of Zimbardo's assistants neatly puts it in the movie: "I don't think we can call this an experiment anymore. It's a demonstration."

Written by Tim Talbott from Zimbardo's book "The Lucifer Effect" -- and made with Zimbardo's cooperation -- "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is a riveting re-enactment played out by an electrifying young cast. Chief among them are Ezra Miller ("We Need to Talk About Kevin") as Prisoner 8612, a self-appointed troublemaker, and Michael Angarano ("The Knick") as a guard who begins imitating Strother Martin's character in the chain-gang drama "Cool Hand Luke" -- complete with the Southern twang.

Zimbardo, played with a nice balance of empathy and hubris by Billy Crudup, was an expert witness in one of the Abu Ghraib trials, and this film shows why. It's impossible not to see the comparison as the students -- good kids at an elite college -- get drunk on power and begin taunting and degrading their classmates. Zimbardo and his "consultant" (Nelsan Ellis as an ex-con), allow the abuse to continue.

Alvarez does a masterful job of juggling more than two dozen characters and turning a mundane backdrop -- mostly white walls and wood paneling -- into a claustrophobic hell. Like Zimbardo's study, "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is a vivid illustration of a truth we'd rather not face.

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