‘The Experiment’

Actors experiment with difficult roles


With some movies, there’s nowhere to go but down. “The Experiment” is one such experience, when, after the first few minutes of cozy hopefulness (a loving couple discussing a trip to India and how to finance it), darkness closes in, smothering the senses like a polyester blanket. Oxygen, please!

Actually, the distributors should hand out comfort goods and iron supplements at the door, because the movie sure as hell ain’t going to cut the viewer any slack. Based on a real-life Stanford University experiment conducted in 1971, and adapted into a film by Germany’s Oliver Hirschbiegel (“Das Experiment”) in 2001, “The Experiment” isn’t really a remake so much as a reinterpretation of what exactly happened in that sunny Californian laboratory 40 years ago. The director this time is Paul Schuering, of hit TV series “Prison Break” fame — and here he concocts a queasy blend of rage, sadism and the emotional toll of excessive role-playing.

The premise promises mayhem and delivers on the dot: A group of mature, law-abiding men are recruited (for a chunk of hard cash) to participate in an “experiment” in which they will inhabit a cell block and be divided into two camps — of wardens and prisoners. In the Stanford experiment, a team of psychology researchers assembled 24 undergraduates in almost the same circumstances, but the subsequent results got so out of hand that professors were forced to call everything off after just six days (the experiment was supposed to last between 10 days and two weeks).

The Experiment
Director Paul Schuering
Run Time 96 minutes
Language English

The 1970s was the era of behavioral psychology and, despite the aborted outcome of the experiment, it served to impress upon everyone involved the unpredicatable and uncontrollable reactions that surface from claustrophobia, peer pressure and the lust for power.

“The Experiment” pretty much traces the same path but, significantly, Scheuring sets up the participants not as a bunch of inexperienced undergrads, but adult men of some social standing, with commitments and responsibilities. Men you’d expect to be less docile, more thoughtful and better equipped to keep their cool.

That cool melts faster than a popsicle in the sun, as the tightly-wound story abruptly shifts gears from psychological observation to how-much-of-this- can-you-stand torture tactics. The 2001 German film focussed more on the science of keeping people incarcerated, and dividing the group into friends (prisoners) and enemies (wardens). Accordingly, the pace was slower, the shots were closer and the director invited the viewer on a journey of historical references, most notably of Hitler’s death camps and the escalation of atrocity under the pretense of discipline. “The Experiment” is less interested in solving a psychological puzzle than it is in dishing out the horror in heaped, choking bowlfuls, and if you witness the meal scenes of mock prisoners forced to down the food handed to them by the pretend wardens, you’ll discover how fear and repellence hit the gut seconds faster than the brain.

Some of the scenes are so rife with pointless gore that it appears Schuering simply relinquished the megaphone and let everyone on the set just go at each other. But on the other hand, the Stanford professors admitted that they had given up control and let the students free (not so metaphorically) to tear at each others’ jugulars. So perhaps the movie isn’t so far off the mark.

In the U.S., “The Experiment” went the straight-to-disc route, though it has the look and feel of a major Hollywood production. The Japan theater relase is mainly due to the box office success here of “Das Experiment” several years back, and according to an industry expert who declines to give his name, “the Japanese will always jump at the opportunity to see people bullied.”

He may have a point: The longer you watch the “The Experiment,” the more it begins to look like a hidden-camera documentary about bullying — and the visuals may recall a slew of fragmented footage from high-school locker rooms to Abu Ghraib. Enhancing the terrifying eeriness are the demonic and even frenzied leads by Academy Award- winners Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker. No doubt the extreme difficulty of the roles was the prime reason these seasoned artisans signed up in the first place, but in the end, their very effectiveness becomes a foil for the story. Deprived of the altruistic excuses of academia and science, Whitaker and Brody’s characters are dragged under the lamp as bloodthirsty powermongers whose objectives switch from survival to inflicting pain, as much and as often as possible. And what makes it doubly worse is that they did it for money.