The Stanford Prison Experiment (film)

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The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford Prison Experiment.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKyle Patrick Alvarez
Written byTim Talbott
Based onThe Lucifer Effect
by Philip Zimbardo
Produced by
  • Lauren Bratman
  • Brent Emery
  • Lizzie Friedman
  • Karen Lauder
  • Greg Little
CinematographyJas Shelton
Edited byFernando Collins
Music byAndrew Hewitt
  • Abandon Pictures
  • Coup d'Etat Films
  • Sandbar Pictures
Distributed byIFC Films
Release dates
  • January 26, 2015 (2015-01-26) (Sundance)
  • July 17, 2015 (2015-07-17) (United States)
Running time
122 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office
  • $660,561 (U.S.)[2]
  • $18,860 (worldwide)[3]

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a 2015 American docudrama thriller film directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, written by Tim Talbott, and starring Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Thirlby, and Nelsan Ellis. The plot concerns the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, conducted at Stanford University under the supervision of psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, in which students played the role of either a prisoner or correctional officer.[4]

The project was announced in 2002 and remained in development for twelve years, with filming beginning on August 19, 2014, in Los Angeles. The film was financed and produced by Sandbar Pictures and Abandon Pictures, and premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 26, before beginning a limited theatrical release on July 17, 2015. The film received mostly positive reviews from critics.


Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducts a psychological experiment to investigate the hypothesis that roles in social situations, rather than individual personality traits, cause participants' behavior. In the experiment, Zimbardo selects eighteen male students to participate in a 14-day prison simulation to take roles as prisoners or guards. They receive $15 per day. The experiment is conducted in a mock prison located in the basement of Jordan Hall, the university's psychology department building. The students who are guards become abusive, as does Zimbardo himself, as they immerse themselves in their assigned roles. Two students who play the role of prisoners quit the experiment early due to psychological meltdowns. After being chastised and roughly brought back to reality by his girlfriend Christina Maslach, Zimbardo abruptly stops the entire experiment after only six days.


  • Billy Crudup as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the lead psychologist of the experiment and plays the role of the prison superintendent
  • Michael Angarano as Christopher Archer / "John Wayne" Guard, a guard in the experiment who becomes the most abusive
  • Ezra Miller as Daniel Culp / Prisoner 8612, a prisoner in the experiment who eventually quits after a mental breakdown
  • Tye Sheridan as Peter Mitchell / Prisoner 819, a prisoner in the experiment. He is the second prisoner to quit after breaking down.
  • Keir Gilchrist as John Lovett, a guard in the experiment
  • Olivia Thirlby as Dr. Christina Maslach, Dr. Zimbardo's girlfriend who persuades him to see the error of his ways
  • Nelsan Ellis as Jesse Fletcher, a man recruited to the experiment by Zimbardo for his "experience", having served 17 years in real prison.
  • Moisés Arias as Anthony Carroll, a guard in the experiment
  • Nicholas Braun as Karl Vandy, a guard in the experiment who is one of the most abusive
  • Gaius Charles as Paul Vogel, one of Zimbardo's associates
  • Ki Hong Lee as Gavin Lee / Prisoner 3401, a prisoner in the experiment who takes vitamins
  • Thomas Mann as Prisoner 416, a prisoner in the experiment brought in as a replacement
  • Logan Miller as Jerry Sherman / Prisoner 5486, a prisoner in the experiment. He is bespectacled and gets headaches when not wearing his glasses.
  • Johnny Simmons as Jeff Jansen / Prisoner 1037, a prisoner in the experiment who had originally advised to do what they were told
  • James Wolk as Mike Penny, who plays the prison warden in the experiment
  • Matt Bennett as Kyle Parker, one of Zimbardo's associates
  • Jesse Carere as Paul Beattie / Prisoner 5704, a prisoner in the experiment and a smoker
  • Brett Davern as Hubbie Whitlow / Prisoner 7258, a prisoner in the experiment who does not take it seriously at first, then realizes the severity of their situation
  • James Frecheville as Matthew Townshend, a guard in the experiment
  • Miles Heizer as Marshall Lovett, a guard in the experiment. He does not appear to be as abusive as his colleagues.
  • Jack Kilmer as Jim Randall / Prisoner 4325, a prisoner in the experiment
  • Callan McAuliffe as Hen, a guard in the experiment
  • Benedict Samuel as Jacob Harding, a guard in the experiment
  • Chris Sheffield as Tom Thompson / Prisoner 2093, a prisoner in the experiment who attempts to be obedient
  • Harrison Thomas as Andrew Ceros


A film about the Stanford prison experiment was first announced in 2002, when producer Brent Emery signed Tim Talbott to write the script for the film. Problems beset and delayed the project for twelve years, including financing and the 2007 writers' strike.[5] In 2006, two competing films about the experiment were in development, one at Maverick Films and the other Inferno's The Experiment,[6] which was a remake of the German film Das Experiment from 2001. Maverick Films, having an ownership break up in August 2008, continued on as Imprint Entertainment Imprint was expected to start filming in January 2009 under producer Christopher McQuarrie.[7]

On August 19, 2014, Sandbar Pictures and Abandon Pictures came on board to finance the film. Kyle Patrick Alvarez was set to direct, and producers were Brent Emery, Lizzie Friedman, Greg Little, Lauren Bratman and Brian Geraghty.[5]


On August 19, 2014, it was announced that Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano would play lead roles.[5] On August 26, Jack Kilmer joined the cast to play Jim Randall, one of the student prisoners whose personality makes him a perfect subject to comply.[8] On August 28, Nicholas Braun joined the film to play Karl Vandy, an abusive and sadistic guard.[9] On September 4, Brett Davern was added to the cast, playing Hubbie Whitlow, an affable young participant whose failed escape attempt leads to grueling humiliation at the hands of sadistic guards.[10] On September 9, Jesse Carere joined the cast to play Paul Beattie, Prisoner 5704, a gangly man who counts smoking as his only vice.[11] On October 10, more of the ensemble cast was announced, including Olivia Thirlby as Dr. Christina Maslach, professor Zimbardo's future wife and fellow academic, Nelsan Ellis as Jesse Fletcher, Tye Sheridan as prisoner Peter Mitchell, James Frecheville as guard Matthew Townshend, Johnny Simmons as prisoner Jeff Jansen, and Ki Hong Lee as prisoner Gavin Lee.[12]


Principal photography began on August 19, 2014, in Los Angeles, and lasted 21 days.[5][8][13]


The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2015.[14] By coincidence, Experimenter, a film about another notorious psychological experiment, the Milgram experiment, had premiered at Sundance the day before.[15]

IFC Films acquired the US rights to the film on March 5, 2015.[16] The film was theatrically released on July 17, 2015, by IFC Films,[17] and on Blu-Ray and iTunes on November 17, 2015.


Upon its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, The Stanford Prison Experiment received a positive response from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes indicates an 84% approval rating, based on reviews from 98 critics, with an average score of 6.97/10. The site's consensus states: "As chillingly thought-provoking as it is absorbing and well-acted, The Stanford Prison Experiment offers historical drama that packs a timelessly relevant punch."[18] On the review site Metacritic, the film has a score of 67 out of 100, based on 26 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[19]

Leslie Felperin of The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a positive review, writing: "For all its flaws it's a rich, thought-provoking film which, while challenging, is not without humor and visual pleasures."[14] Kyle Smith of the New York Post felt that "Tim Talbott's dense script provides much to discuss and argue about, providing both left and right with talking points."[20] Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian gave the film four out of five stars and judged that "Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez deserves all the praise in the world for the way he cranks up this pressure cooker script."[21] Edward Douglas in his review for ComingSoon praised the film, remarking: "While this is going to be a polarizing and divisive film, it's one that people will talk about after seeing it, almost as if it was made as an experiment itself."[22]

However, Justin Chang of Variety criticized the film, saying "The combination of relentless forward drive and gruesomely fastidious detail, while audacious and admirable in theory, begins to pay dwindling returns in a picture that feels rather longer than its 122-minute running time."[23]


List of accolades
Award / Film festival Category Recipient(s) Result
31st Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize (U.S. Dramatic) Kyle Patrick Alvarez Nominated[24]
Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize Won[25]
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (U.S. Dramatic) Tim Talbott Won[24]


  1. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment (15)". British Board of Film Classification. May 31, 2016. Retrieved May 31, 2016.
  2. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)". Box Office Mojo. July 19, 2015. Retrieved January 26, 2020.
  3. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)". The Numbers. Retrieved January 27, 2020.
  4. ^ Philip G. Zimbardo (January 17, 2013). "Philip G. Zimbardo". Social Psychology Network. Retrieved October 24, 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d Sneider, Jeff (August 19, 2014). "Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano to Star in 'Stanford Prison Experiment'". Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  6. ^ DiOrio, Carl (October 30, 2006). "Stanford pics in stand-off". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 12, 2014.
  7. ^ Schneider, Michael (August 8, 2008). "Maverick Films splits". Variety. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  8. ^ a b Yamato, Jen (August 26, 2014). "Jack Kilmer Joins 'Stanford Prison Experiment'". Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  9. ^ Yamato, Jen (August 28, 2014). "Nick Braun Heads To 'Stanford'". Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  10. ^ Yamato, Jen (September 4, 2014). "'Awkward's Brett Davern Heads To 'Stanford'". Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  11. ^ "Jesse Carere Takes Part In 'Stanford Prison Experiment'". September 9, 2014. Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  12. ^ Yamato, Jen (October 10, 2014). "'Stanford Prison Experiment' Adds Olivia Thirlby, 'True Blood's Nelsan Ellis, More". Retrieved October 11, 2014.
  13. ^ Warner, Kara (July 21, 2015). "'Stanford Prison Experiment' Director Talks Film's Shooting Schedule". Screen Rant. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  14. ^ a b Felperin, Leslie (January 26, 2015). "The Stanford Prison Experiment': Sundance Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
  15. ^ Seemayer, Zach (January 22, 2015). "9 Sundance 2015 Films We Are Dying to See". ET Online.
  16. ^ Pedersen, Erik (March 5, 2015). "IFC Films Locks Up 'Stanford Prison Experiment'; JB Blanc Joins 'Arms And The Dudes' — Film Briefs". Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  17. ^ Moore, Debi (April 6, 2015). "Take The Stanford Prison Experiment in Theaters this July". Dread Central. Retrieved April 9, 2015.
  18. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 29, 2020.
  19. ^ "The Stanford Prison Experiment". Metacritic. Retrieved November 19, 2017.
  20. ^ Smith, Kyle (January 27, 2015). "Thriller 'The Stanford Prison Experiment' will give you chills". New York Post. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  21. ^ Hoffman, Jordan (January 30, 2015). "Sundance 2015 review – The Stanford Prison Experiment: notorious behaviour test becomes masterful film". The Guardian. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  22. ^ "Sundance Film Festival Diary – Day 5". January 27, 2015. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  23. ^ Chang, Justin (January 27, 2015). "Sundance Film Review: 'The Stanford Prison Experiment'". Variety. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
  24. ^ a b "Here Are Your 2015 Sundance Film Festival Winners". Retrieved February 2, 2015.
  25. ^ "Sundance Institute and Alfred P. Slan Foundation Award" (PDF). Retrieved January 26, 2014.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Alfred P. Sloan Prize Winner
Succeeded by