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film review

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s intense new film looks back at the study gone wild.Spencer Shwetz

In 1971, a professor at California's Stanford University held an experiment, involving white, male students assuming the roles of guards and prisoners, for a study on the effects of incarceration on human behaviour. Kyle Patrick Alvarez's intense new film The Stanford Prison Experiment looks back at the study gone wild. We see the selected students role-playing, with undergrads assigned as guards revealing a latent knack for sadism and intimidating their bewildered, unnerved charges. Billy Crudup is darkly enigmatic as the experiment-setter Philip Zimbardo, looking on with unseemly enthrallment as the drama gets real. The acting is uniformly strong and the camera work is winningly claustrophobic, but the film is one note: scene after scene of bullying. One of the guards injects an actor's flair, borrowing from Strother Martin's wicked Cool Hand Luke chain-gang warden. One wonders if the film's takeaway is that we are all capable of sliding into that kind of oppression, or if it is that certain professions demand a particular tyranny. What we have here is a failure to communicate. – Brad Wheeler