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“The Stanford Prison Experiment”: One of the best indie films of 2015 so far

The stanford prison experiment

True life dramas are sometimes inherently less thrilling because you might already know the outcome. In the case of The Stanford Prison Experiment, the film is as riveting as the actual study was, and perhaps even more so. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and his amazing ensemble cast do real justice to the actual event and in turn put forward a captivating look at human nature. Unsettling, even upsetting at times, it’s a challenging movie, but one that’s about as good as any so far in 2015. It’s a small flick, but one that really demands to be seen. It opens this weekend and truly is a must see.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a slightly dramatized look at the historic study of the same name by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup). The professor selected 24 male students out of 75 applicants and had them take on completely randomly assigned roles of either prisoners or guards in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building during the 1970’s. The plan was for it to go on for two weeks, but it barely lasted six days. What you see is how it all broke down, with the guard subjects almost immediately brutalizing the prisoners. It’s captivating, truly. Alvarez directs a brilliant ensemble cast from a script by Tim Talbott. In addition to Crudup, the cast is a who’s who of up and comers that includes Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Bruan, Nelson Ellis, James Frecheville, Keir Gilchrist, Jack Kilmer, Thomas Mann, Callan McAuliffe, Ezra Miller, Chris Sheffield, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Olivia Thirlby, and more. They’re all aces too.

Simply put, the cast is to die for. Everyone does tremendous work, with Angarano, Braun, Crudup, Ellis, Miller, Sheffield, and Thirlby especially impressing in a big way. You recognize them, but they disappear into their roles almost immediately. Angarano is the incarnate of man just going with whatever impulse he has when given power, with Crudup the overlord watching his subjects flail about. Miller gets to be the prisoner who cracks, while Thirlby is the voice of reason. It’s all so good, you forget that it’s not a documentary at times. That’s a credit to the writing and direction as well, and I’ll get to them next, but the cast just all do tremendous work. It’s probably too small of a flick to catch on during awards season, but the Independent Spirit Awards should hopefully take notice at the very least.

Alvarez’s tight shots and tense direction take the compelling script by Talbott and elevate it along with the cast. He is determined to give you the “you are there” feel without getting obsessed with shaky-cam or anything of the sort. There’s long takes of almost unbearable tension, scenes you want to look away from but can’t, and just an overwhelming sense of shock that this is as captivating as it is. It’s one of those stories you never would believe was true if it wasn’t well known, but it’s a credit to all involved with The Stanford Prison Experiment that they sell you on the premise with such ease.

In terms of awards, it’s probably the aforementioned Spirit Awards or bust, but if I had my say, this would be an Oscar contender. Almost anyone from the cast deserves Supporting consideration, with Angarano, Crudup, and Miller in particular being names I wish would be cited in the Best Supporting Actor race. That’s the only chance it really has anywhere, outside of Ensemble nominations at a few precursors. It’s a fringe contender at best, but the quality is there, and frankly…stranger things have happened. It likely won’t even come close, but I’m certainly going to do my part to keep it in the conversation, if only as a wishful thinking sort of situation.

Basically, I can say in no uncertain terms that The Stanford Prison Experiment is a great movie and one of indie cinema’s crowning achievements for 2015 so far, so this weekend is getting another top notch work for theatergoers. As the year progresses, it might find itself slipping in the rankings, but right now it’s easily one of my top ten films of the year and would be closer to the top five than anywhere else. Tremendously well acted, impeccably made, and with something profound to say, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a must see. It’ll be out tomorrow, so make it your business to seek it out…

Be sure to check out The Stanford Prison Experiment, in theaters on Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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