Saturday, November 14, 2015

With THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, Kyle Patrick Alvarez takes us back to the 1970s and some ground-breaking research

Kyle Patrick Alvarez jumped onto my filmmakers-to-watch list with his first film, Easier With Practice, back in 2009, appeared there again with his second feature C.O.G., and now, with his newest movie, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, must be moved to the favorite filmmakers category. Mine is a fairly wide-ranging "favorites" list, of course, but as concerns filmmakers who explore the male in modern American society, I find Alvarez one of the most interesting, perhaps one of the best.

If "Practice" and C.O.G. dealt with mainly one man (and a few of his surrounding friends or relatives), The Stanford Prison Experiment concerns a bevy of them -- students chosen for the now infamous experiment in which the subjects were placed in the confines of what appeared to be a kind of prison, with some acting as prisoners, the others overlording it as guards. The filmmaker, shown at right, and his screenwriter, Tim Talbott, use the appropriate documentary style to push us into their venue and make it seem utterly real. Very initially, the young men react as expected, joking and taking things none too seriously. It does not, however, take long before the young men acting as guards, goaded somewhat by those in charge of the experiment and told, falsely, that they were chosen based on their leadership qualities (in truth, they were chosen via the flip of a coin), begin to exercise that power that people in "policing" positions seem to feel is their god-given right. What happens after is shocking and powerful.

The experiment was to have lasted two weeks; it ended far sooner than that, as breakdowns, physical and mental, came more rapidly than the 'doctors' in charge could foresee. The man at the helm of the experiment, played with ramrod sternness by Billy Crudup (above, left), initially appears the primary villain. By the end of the film, guilt is not so easily or thoroughly placed, though the good doctor willingly assumes his share. The only woman on view is the doc's significant other, played well by Olivia Thirlby, who challenges her man and forces him to consider the gravity of what he's doing.

Among the prisoners and guards, an excellent acting ensemble is given the opportunity to shine, and there is nothing less than superb performances offered all around. As you watch the film, in fact, you may find yourself realizing that, had one of the most "put-upon" prisoners been assigned a guard role, he would have been every bit as ugly and hurtful as a guard as he is frightened and pleading as a prisoner. And of course, you wonder how you would have acted under these circumstances.

The film's (and the experiment's) ace-in-the-hole, however, is having an actual prisoner -- a black man (played beautifully by Nelsan Ellis, shown second from left, three photos above) who has spent years in San Quentin -- on hand to verify the "truthfulness" of the situation and the reactions of the men. This adds another layer of irony and reality to the situation, while also making for some superb theatrics.

In 2002, a fine foreign film titled The Experiment (starring Moritz Bleibtreu) gave us its own version of these same events, German style. More fictional, as well more suspenseful and exciting, this movie should make an interesting co-feature with Alvarez's new one. (In 2010, yet another version of the Stanford experiment -- also titled The Experiment -- was made starring Adrian Brody, which I have not seen).

After a limited and relatively short theatrical release, The Stanford Prison Experiment -- form IFC Films and running a lengthy 122 minutes -- hits the street on DVD this Tuesday, November 17, for purchase or rental.

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