27 March 2011

Movies: The Experiment

The Experiment http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0997152/

An ad in the paper promises $1000 a day for a fourteen day psychological experiment.  After screening and psychological tests, twenty-six men are chosen out of all the applicants and bussed to a remote location. They are split into two groups - prisoners and guards. I don't recall the actual numbers but I think it was somewhere around six guards to twenty prisoners. The guards are given five rules to follow, the prisoners aren't briefed on their jobs except to be prisoners.  Everyone is told if they leave the experiment early or break the no-violence rules nobody gets paid. Over the course of the experiment things spiral out of control as the volunteers fall into their roles, or refuse to be defined by them.

The film has its major stars Adrien Brody and Forrest Whitaker, with some other recognizables including Maggie Grace (Shannon - Lost) and the dude-that-looks-like-a-mini-Michael-Douglas Fisher Stevens (Minkowski - Lost). 

The film is messed up enough and violent enough to be an entertaining and thrilling peek into the spiraling degeneration of human behavior in the uncontrolled-controlled conditions set up for the experiment.  The wife really enjoyed the film, I liked it.

Thing is, I had mixed feelings about a couple things.  For instance, the performances.  Overall the performances were fine. However I really believed Forrest Whitaker's character transformation - he really sold it.  Adrien Brody, not so much. I'm not sure why, because I've seen Brody deliver fine performances in the past, but for some reason this one didn't work for me.  Either that or Whitaker just flat-out eclipsed Brody on screen. 
I realize Maggie Grace's character was supposed to be Brody's go-to "happy place," but she was a time-expensive way to deliver a key-moment plot mover. I don't know if her character or its storyline were really necessary to the film. I like the actress, I just thought her story bits consumed time better used to tell us about the other key guard and prisoner characters.
Which I realize is a tough balance, because if the film had given us detailed backgrounds on the other key guard and prisoner roles like they did with Whitaker and Brody it probably would've cluttered the film and slowed it down.  But lacking backgrounds as detailed as Whitaker's and Brody's also made those other character motivations a little murkier.  It was immensely helpful to get the little clips of their pre-experiment interviews that we did get, I just kindof wish they'd given a little bit more of those interspersed with the start of the experiment footage and less Maggie Grace.

Another thing, which I hesitate to hint at because I don't want to reveal the whole movie, is I don't understand why it took so long for the experiment to abort. One would think one key event would've caused it to abort at that moment instead of allowing it to fall apart even further.  We never get to see what is happening with the  experiment controllers or why they let it go on as they did. However, for the film to work, not seeing the controllers is necessary to maintain the sense of isolationism the volunteers are living under.

Also, at the end when the prisoners and guards were all on the bus coming back from the site, I expected that the guards would've naturally sat themselves together and separate from the prisoners instead of everyone just kinda sitting wherever.

I wanted to watch the film because I remember hearing about, then reading about the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment years ago.  I guessed (correctly) that the film was loosely based on that experiment and I wanted to see how it was portrayed in film.  After seeing the film, I think I would rather watch a documentary on the actual Stanford Prison Experiment. Just to see what really happened. To me, the reality would be much scarier to see unfold. Something about the how this fictionalized taken-to-an-extreme film unfolds  rings hollow compared with the knowledge that someone really did do this experiment.  And to the film's credit - they did loosely stick to the actual experiment's timetable of events, just took them to a more extreme conclusion.

But it isn't necessarily the movie's fault for failing to meet my expectations, because they are expectations I held from prior exposure to the actual story. I suspect the movie would be more enjoyable for folks who haven't previously heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment, as was the case for the wife.

It is probably worth a watch. It is good enough and entertaining enough if you enjoy psychological thrillers. And it just happens to be streaming on Netflix as of this post.

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