Rated R for non-stop abuse and vulgar content. Honestly, the movie is a test to see how much increasingly offensive content you can handle. There's a tipping point, but it is still a movie that really pushes the limits of comfort for the audience. How much can these guys go through? Well, that would all contribute to an MPAA rating of R.
DIRECTOR: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
If you want me to watch your movie that I wasn't fully aware of before, show up on a podcast that I listen to. You'll all talk so vaguely about the movie that I simply have to see it to make sense of the world. I almost watched Tusk with the same logic. I thought my ambivalence to Kevin Smith movies had gone away because he's just so darned charismatic. The same thing happened here, with The Stanford Prison Experiment. The writer of the film was on Harmontown and it's wasn't super spoilery considering that it is a docudrama. I knew the loosey-goosey information about what had happened, but I suppose that I wanted the nitty gritty. This also hits a sweet spot about being kind of true crime and also a decently made movie, so I knew what was up in my head. Yeah, it's not REALLY true crime. But it probably presses the same button.
I don't know how to write about this film without probably thinking that this is more of a study of history and a study of human psychology. I can just take information from the film I watched. I'm not an expert on the original experiment, so I have to kind of glean what I can from a film. I know that there are fictional elements to a movie like this. Plot and pacing are dependent on screenwriters and directors taking liberties with the actual events. This isn't my first rodeo. But based on the interview, they actually got the real Zimbardo to consult on this movie. I think that might be the most insane thing about everything that went on with the making of this movie. If I have to look at one thing that I really want to know, I want to know "Who is Zimbardo?" Zimbardo is the villain of the piece. Even though the movie really builds its audience into hating some of the guards, Zimbardo is the one who pulls all of the strings. Apparently, the real Zimbardo only gained clarity in hindsight. After it was all said and done, that's when he realized what he had actually done. He only realized the moral lines that he had crossed after everyone had actually pointed it out to him. Perhaps it is a sense of redemption that he is fighting for, but his consultation on this film is probably what drew it to me more than anything else. Okay, that and being only remotely aware of what actually happened in the real event.
The goal of the film is shock and awe. If you know the story, you know that messed up stuff happens. I mean, I'm ashamed to say that I've seen more messed up stuff than The Stanford Prison Experiment. But the focus of The Stanford Prison Experiment is that it happens...so quickly. The podcast had the same moment that I did. When the tag "Day 2" pops up on screen, you have that realization: "That was ALL DAY ONE?" Yeah, that's where things get a little crazy. Again, I know very little about science. I'm all about English, where I willy-nilly determine if a character would actually follow through on an action that may seem out of character. All of my choices are arbitrary and simply based on my experiences and moral bias. There's something almost astrological about the events that happen in the experiment. The takeaway, besides how quickly things spiral out of control, is that anyone could be an absolute nutbar. The end of the movie, with the recreated interviews (Why not show the real interviews?), are meant to remind us that anyone could go completely over-the-top given the right circumstances. That's what the former "guard" was implying. He didn't think that he had it in him and it haunts him that he did have this moral weakness. They all did. But a lot of this comes from one idea that maybe the movie didn't exactly address. I think a lot of this came from the fact that there was a really strong alpha male and a string of followers who were weak willed. I'm about to teach Lord of the Flies when I get back. I know that The Stanford Prison Experiment is kind of covering some of the same ground. No one really wants to believe that they have the capability to be insane. And I know, I'm doing what everyone else does. I'm convinced that I would abuse prisoners. I know the worst part of me. I know that I clench up with fear when I see the social code being violated. I have a slow reaction time. But I also know that I find no pleasure in the molestation of another human being. Is there something, perhaps, about adolescence that is extremely sensitive to adult influence?
Do you know why I know that I wouldn't go for any of this nonsense? I think a group of adults realizes that other adults are just as fallible as they are. In The Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo is of a different social order. A learned individual of repute, the subjects of the experiment view themselves as children. They act like fools most of the time. They are there because they have a financial desire to survive. A rich person is giving them money to do what he tells them. Now, this is where the sociological and psychological stuff get interesting. The dynamic in the prison system is probably the same thing. I find it really interesting that they had an ex-con kind of overseeing the more problematic elements of the experiment. That character was confusing because I never really understood where he stood. At times, he looked at Zimbardo like he was a monster and there were other times where he thought that Zimbardo wasn't doing enough evil in this experiment. But after seeing 13th, which I find to still be a weak documentary despite being wildly eye-opening, and interviewing Van Jones for the podcast, the prison system is completely a mess. The actual experiment posits that anyone given that power dynamic would become corrupted quickly. I don't completely agree. I think it has to come down to a power dynamic. The warden is a powerful image of power and responsibility. Lots of jobs have a hierarchy. It's kind of how we work as a civilization. But if I compare my power dynamic and one within a prison, there seems to be a dangerous precedent. I respect the principal of the school, but I can talk to her like a human being. She's removed from the classroom, but inserts herself as a peer when needed. I always understand a warden to be almost like the king of a prison. I know that this is a wildly naive idea and it is entirely based on my obsession with movies. But a warden is educated and financially stable. Guards, I understand, make due. Often, there isn't an insane amount of education to a prison guard. The experiment may have actually mimicked something unintentional. Because Zimbardo was an extremely educated person in a place of power working from an educational position of power, the students who were financially strapped and considered lesser, despite the Stanford acceptance, were in a place of forced trust. If a warden allowed for poor behavior in a jail, then there would be poor behavior in a jail. When Zimbardo encouraged violence and inappropriate behavior, that's what was coming out of that. If I look at one of my graduate professors, I assume a level of respect. But as an adult and a teacher myself, when I smell shannigans, I know how the sausage is made. I know that adults are far more fallible. While there is a power dynamic between my professors and myself, I also know that the line between me and them is far thinner. Could you get a group of educated adults to do the same things that the boys in this experiment did? Probably not.
From a structural perspective, I have to appreciate that the movie isn't entirely about delusion. In real life, some people got out. Some ups and downs happened. Nothing is completely raising the stakes constantly. But it does become pretty bleak and a little bit repetitive. It's really when actors have stand out parts that the movie gets interesting. I don't exactly love Ezra Miller. I haven't seen him in anything that knocks my socks off. I mean, he's fine. But he really steals the show in the film. It's because he's got the juiciest role and he milks every second of it. It's so interesting because I would completely clash with his character, regardless of what side I was on. But because of that, he also has the most to play with. He's not a protagonist, but we also see that he is only adding fuel to the fire that he's not really aware of. It's interesting that there are people on both sides of the experiment who allow this situation to get nuts. If Miller's character wasn't there, I'm sure that things still would have gotten out of hand. But it's interesting to see how the events spiraled out of control oh-so-very-quickly and I think that has to do with Miller's obsession with chaos. The movie also played with the notion that not everyone was corrupted by power. There was one guy who just kept trying to defuse the situation from getting worse. The range of morality was fascinating as well. I really woke up when there was one prisoner who wouldn't swear. You have these guards who, for the most part, were morally bankrupt. Say what you will about the testimony at the end ("I was just surprised that no one stopped me. I kept waiting for them to stop me and it never happened."), there had to be a level of enjoyment coming out of them. But there was one prisoner who had a moral code. It didn't matter if he was there to pretend to be devoid of a moral code. He was going to be true to himself and that's cool. He wouldn't swear and he was given that hypothetical conundrum to play out. It was neat...in a really disturbing way.
It's weird to get bored when so much terrible stuff is happening on screen. I suppose that I should be recommending this movie to everyone. Despite being really well made and reminding me, for some reason, of Zodiac, I think I would prefer this as a documentary rather than a docudrama. Because the the cruelty reaches a tipping point, it becomes a bit of a burden to watch the whole thing at times. Regardless, it is well made. It's just if wishes were horses, I'd prefer this in documentary form. I'm sure that it's out there somewhere. A quick Google search...
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.