The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir by Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
The Stanford Prison Experiment tells a true story. It’s important to point that out because this is one of those films that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you would probably be inclined to dismiss as being totally improbable.
In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford University. A fake prison was built in the basement of a campus building, complete with cells and even a room to be used for solitary confinement. 15 students volunteered to take part in the experiment. For $15.00 a day, some of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners while others got to be guards. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days. Why? Because the students had started to the take the experiment very seriously, with the guards growing increasingly sadistic towards their “prisoners.” Afterwards, many of the prisoner students claimed to have been traumatized while the guard students felt they were just playing a game.
(As one of the guards says in the film, “Am I still going to get paid?”)
The Stanford Prison Experiment tells the story of that controversial experiment and it is, at times, quite a harrowing experience. Interestingly, when the film begins, the focus is on the prisoners. I immediately noticed that Ezra Miller was one of the prisoners and, being familiar with his work in Perks of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I naturally assumed that the majority of the film would revolve around him. After all, among the actors playing the prisoners, Ezra Miller was the “biggest name.” And, when the film began, it did seem to be centered around Miller’s likable and rebellious presence.
But then something happened. Miller faded into the background. In fact, all of the “prisoners” faded into the background and the actors became almost indistinguishable from each other. Instead, the film started to focus on one of the guards. Outside of the prison, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) is a laid back and rather amiable California college student. But, once he shows up for the night shift, Archer starts to talk about all of the prison films that he’s seen. He starts to speak in a Southern accent. He says stuff like, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” And soon, Archer is making the rules inside the prison.
In much the same way that Christopher Archer takes over the experiment, actor Michael Angarano takes over the film. While Zimbardo and his colleagues watch Archer’s actions with a mix of fascination and fear, the film’s audience becomes enthralled with Angarano’s intense performance. Wisely, neither Angarano nor the film allow Archer to turn into a cardboard villain. He’s not a bad guy. Instead, he’s playing a role. He’s been told to act like a guard and that’s what he’s going to do, regardless of whatever else may happen. The most fascinating part of the film becomes the contrast between Archer the likable student and Archer the fascist authority figure.
It’s frustrating that more people didn’t see The Stanford Prison Experiment when it was released in 2015. Considering the blind trust in authority that is currently so popular in certain parts of the American culture, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that a lot of people really do need to see and learn from.
The Tribe (dir by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Anyone who says that they truly understand everything that happens in the disturbing Ukrainian film The Tribe is lying. Taking place at a school for the deaf and exclusively cast with deaf actors, The Tribe is a film where everyone communicates in Ukrainian Sign Language and there are no subtitles. However, the actors are often filmed with their back to the camera and occasionally, their hands are out of frame so, even if you do know Ukrainian Sign Language, there’s still going to be scenes where you have no idea what anyone is saying.
And it’s appropriate really. The Tribe is a film about alienation and, by refusing to give us either an interpreter or subtitles, it forces the audience to feel the same alienation that the film’s characters have to deal with on a daily basis. It quickly becomes obvious that these permanent outsiders have created their own society and the least of their concerns is whether the rest of the world understands it.
What can be learned about the film’s story largely comes from the body language of the actors and the audience’s own knowledge of gangster movies, which is what The Tribe basically is. A new student at a boarding school for the deaf is recruited into a gang that deals drugs and pimps out two female students as prostitutes at a truck stop. When the new student falls in love with one of the girls, it leads to some truly brutal acts of violence, all of which are somehow made more disturbing by the fact that they take place in total silence.
(The talkative criminals of most gangster films allow audiences to focus on something other than the violence. When people talk about the opening of a film like Pulp Fiction, they talk about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about Amsterdam. They don’t focus on the guys getting gunned down in their apartment. In The Tribe, there are no quips or one-liners before people are hurt and we are forced to pay more attention to the consequences of brutality.)
The Tribe is made up of only 34 shots. The wide-angle lens forces us to consider these alienated characters against the barren Ukrainian landscape and the camera constantly moves with the characters, tracking them as closely as fate. Intense and dream-lie, The Tribe is a hauntingly enigmatic film. It’s not an easy film but it is a rewarding one.