Both based on real events and unafraid to expand truth into drama, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” recreates perhaps the most infamous psychological study in history. Stanford Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (here played by Billy Crudup), seeking to do some work over the slow 1971 summer break, took 24 students and created a mock jail in a Stanford campus basement with paid volunteers made into either guards or prisoners. Partly military-funded, the experiment was to observe the psychological effects that these roles would have on those who had volunteered for the study; it ended in disaster and scandal.
Alvarez’s direction here is impressive: The film is afraid of neither silence nor darkness, and the framing of most scenes puts a focal point front and center while other elements — conspiracies, doubts, whispered complaints — take place at the sides or in the background. Cinematographer Jas Shelton is an indie veteran (“Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “C.O.G.”), but his work here evokes period-appropriate studio films like “All The President’s Men” as his camera creates a world defined by either bruise-blue darkness or punishingly bright fluorescent lighting. The excellent music by Andrew Hewitt (“The Double,” “The Brass Teapot”) incorporates a metronomic ticking on occasion, as if God were watching events with one eye on some cosmic stopwatch and making notes for Himself.
The performances are great, brief but real sketches of real people. Michael Angarano (“Wild Card”) is a standout as a volunteer who asks to be made a criminal but gets to be a guard, and then sinks into his role as comfortably as if it were a pair of fur-lined jackboots, riffing on “Cool Hand Luke” and other prison-movie dialogue, taking to the part a little too well. Nelsan Ellis (“True Blood,” “Get On Up”) is also superb as a real-life ex-con brought on board to give the experiment some first-hand knowledge, and who later glimpses how badly things are going.
For all of the tension and trouble in the film, there’s also no small amount of comedy — and, later, as things devolve, no small amount of compassion. Ezra Miller is notable for his work as a prisoner who cracks under the real tensions of a simulated situation; Olivia Thirlby stands out as Christina Maslach, Zimbardo’s then-partner who dropped by to see how things were going early on and quickly became the sole voice of reason encouraging Zimbardo to stop the experiment immediately. And the always excellent, always under-utilized Crudup is also great, as Zimbardo watches his experiment start lumbering forward under its own unstoppable power, like a shaggy-haired ’70s riff on Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Alvarez’s filmography is only three movies long, but you can still make out the shape of a concern running through all of his work: Things are not what they seem, but we still believe what we’re told they are. Any movie could have (and other movies inspired by the real story already have) focused, myopically, on how the students made into guards became authoritarian or how the prisoners soon became their own worst jailers.
What Alvarez, screenwriter Tim Talbott and the cast do, superbly, is remind us of the what actually transpired in the real experiment, making it clear that what happened that summer at Stanford wasn’t only about the guards who beat their charges or the prisoners who submitted to those beatings: It was also about the people in charge who watched and who failed to act when events devolved to that brutal level. Disturbing, honest and compelling, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” turns a well-known story into must-see storytelling, depicting the ugly truth through gorgeous filmmaking.