During the closing credits of Kyle Patrick Alvarez's The Stanford Prison Experiment, we see a glimpse of the broader perspective that the film itself declines to show. Essentially a straightforward reenactment of the famous experiment conducted by Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in 1971—in which students paid to simulate a prison environment quickly devolved into the roles of sadistic guards and shattered victims—Stanford spares pitifully few minutes to reflect on how it happened or what it meant.
Only after the film has concluded do we witness another re-creation—that of a post-experiment interview between the student who most zealously took on his role of "guard," Christopher (Michael Angarano), and the "prisoner" he most tormented, Daniel (Ezra Miller). It's a short but insightful clip, and its hasty inclusion puts all that Stanford doesn't do into sharper relief.
Alvarez's film quickly jumps to the heart of the experiment rather than tease out the details that contextualize it, to this day, as a reference and point of debate. It's easy to stoke sympathy for the students suffering in prisoner roles, and their situations are immediately understandable.
But Alvarez refuses to engage more than perfunctorily with the students taking on the guard roles. What were they thinking? How did they describe what they were doing at the time to their friends? The film takes an episode in academic history that, however imperfect, continues to find relevancy in important societal debates, and reduces it to a framing device for a quirky thriller.
Ambitions lowered, Stanford does deliver thrills, thanks to performances like Angarano's (whose real-life counterpart mimicked the Captain character in Cool Hand Luke while tormenting fellow test subjects) and Billy Crudup, who plays Zimbardo somewhere between a maverick scientist and an ambitious bully. Consider it a gateway film, then, to a situation so improbable that it bears, one hopes, further investigation.