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While most people, if asked, would probably describe themselves as having some sort of moral compass, it really all comes down to a matter of degrees. It’s often easy for people to follow moral codes when either the state or religion sets up the guidelines but remove those constructs and things get a bit iffier. The real problem, of course, tends to be those who are more “circumstantial moralists”: people who would abstain from theft while the clerk is watching but think nothing of nicking a pack of gum when his back is turned. As evidenced by the sheer volume of folks who think nothing of grabbing as much as they can for themselves, with no regards to others or a “greater good,” I’m inclined to say that we, as a society, have largely become circumstantial moralists: we have no problem doing the “right thing” when it’s mandated or when people are watching but tend to revert back to purely selfish needs when the camera isn’t pointed directly at us.

Writer/director Paul T. Scheuring’s The Experiment (2010) is yet another in a pretty long line of films that take the concept of a specific social experiment and uses it as a way to shine a light into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. In this case, the film re-examines the phenomenon of the Stanford Prison Experiment, although it’s also explicitly listed as both an adaptation of Mario Giordano’s novel Black Box and a remake of the German film, Das Experiment (2001), itself an adaptation of Black Box. Despite its slightly thorny genesis, The Experiment ends up being a fairly standard psychological drama, albeit one with more than its fair share of degrading situations and unpleasant scenarios. At the end of the day, however, the film ends up being just another example of the evil that men do when given free rein and how a complacent society is just as guilty as the monsters it allows to roam the land.

For those not aware, the Stanford Prison Experiment was a real social experiment that lasted for all of six days in 1971. In the experiment, a group of 24 men was divided into “prisoners” and “guards,” using the basement of an old Stanford University building as a mock “prison.” The purpose of the experiment was to test how subjects would break down into power relationships, based on their “roles,” but the whole thing ended up being a pretty spectacular disaster. The “guards” turned into brutal authority figures, using violence and psychological torture to break down the “prisoners,” all of which was allowed by the scientists running the test. Needless to say, very few academics will go on record as supporting psychological torture and the tests were shut down post-haste, leaving the whole failed experiment as a sort of sociological shorthand for unexpectedly brutal, authoritarian experiments on conflict study/resolution. Suffice to say that, over forty years later, the Stanford Prison Experiment still stands as a notable black eye for the world of psychology.

For the most part, The Experiment doesn’t veer far from this basic premise: a group of 26 men, all from different backgrounds and walks of life, are brought to an abandoned prison facility, separated into “guards” and “prisoners” and told to follow a set of five rules. When the rules are violated, punishment must be swift and unflinching: if rule-breakers are not suitably handled within 30 minutes of their violations, a red light will go on, signalling an end to the experiment. Since each of the men are set to earn $1000/day for their participation, it’s in everyone’s best interests to make sure that the light never goes on. This, of course, leads to the film’s central conflict/point: if anything goes, as long as the red light doesn’t come on, how can there possibly be any moral standard or guidelines? The short answer, of course, is that there can’t be: once the experiment revolves around punishing “wrongdoers,” a Pandora’s box is opened, unleashing all manner of horrors upon the “guards” and their unwilling charges.

We meet several of the test participants but two principals emerge pretty early on. The first is Travis (Adrien Brody), who serves as our “every-man” protagonist, a kind-hearted, smart, altruistic guy who’s just lost his job, met a new girl and wants to use his earnings to follow her to India for some good, old-fashioned spiritual awakening. Travis is the kind of guy who attends peace rallies but has no problem putting the hammer down on obnoxious, violent pro-war party-crashers. He’s a good guy, with a capital “G,” and he’ll come to represent the prisoner faction. The other principal player is Michael (Forrest Whitaker), a soft-spoken, shy, slightly nerdy 40-year-old who still lives at home with his brow-beating, ultra-religious mother. Despite his friendly, laid-back attitude, we get the distinct impression that Michael may not be playing with a full deck. Faster than you can say “Overlook Hotel,” Michael has been made a “guard” and has begun what can best be described as a “Nicholsonian” slide into complete bat-shit crazy territory.

Everyone else seems to fall in line somewhere between these two polar opposites: on the prisoner side, you have Nix (Clifton Collins, Jr.), whose tattoos seem suspiciously reminiscent of real Aryan Nation prison tats; Benjy (Ethan Cohn), a gawky, comic-book obsessed diabetic; and Oscar (Jason Lew), the only openly gay member of the group. On the guard side, we have Chase (Cam Gigandet), a ridiculously macho, sadistic “bro-dog”; Helweg (Travis Fimmel), a guyliner-wearing sycophant who follows whoever happens to be the current alpha male and Bosch (David Banner), a kind-hearted individual who becomes increasingly uneasy as “upholding the rules” quickly devolves into “inhuman torture.”

And devolve it does…rather quickly, too, if I might add. After an impromptu basketball game ends with Bosch’s bloody nose, Chase decides that a little punishment is in order and forces the prisoners to do push-ups. Helweg sees Chase as some sort of conquering hero but Michael isn’t so sure…until, that is, he comes to believe that the prisoners all need to be knocked down a peg or two. Targeting Travis, who is seen as the defacto leader, Michael initiates psychological warfare against the other man: he’s chained to his cell wall overnight, wearing only his underwear; blasted with a fire extinguisher; has his head forcibly shaved and, in one of the film’s most horrifying/nauseating moments, is repeatedly urinated on. Despite what they throw at him, however, Travis refuses to break or resort to violence: the rest of the prisoners continue to look up to him and the guards’ hold remains tenuous, at best. Michael is not a man to be trifled with, however, and power can be a heady drug. The harder that Travis resists, the harder that Michael strikes back, culminating in a shocking act of violence that ends up pitting the prisoners against the guards in final, bloody conflict.

Although The Experiment is neither a particularly original nor an especially thought-provoking film, there are a few elements that unnecessarily hobble the production. Chief among the issues, unfortunately, is Whitaker’s completely over-the-top performance. Normally an incredibly reliable presence, Whitaker seems to be channeling the worst excesses of Nicholas Cage here and his transition from “slightly subdued” to “full-bore loony” is so quick as to be virtually non-existent. When Whitaker really takes off, such as the absolutely awful bit where he screams, “Time to clean the TOY-A-LETT!,” at Brody’s character, the film pretty much grinds to a halt around him and becomes something closer to parody than drama. There is one fairly brilliant moment that gives visual representation to the notion that power gives men a boner but, aside from that bit, it’s almost impossible to take him seriously which makes suspension of disbelief a bit of a problem.

Brody, for his part, turns in one of those standard-issue performances that are just tuned-in enough but no substitute for his better genre performances in films like Splice (2009) or Predators (2010). This is more along the lines of his work in Wrecked (2010) or Giallo (2009): good enough but too prone to histrionics to be truly affecting.

The rest of the cast ends up being a mixed bag, although Cam Gigandet is a thoroughly repulsive presence as the rape-happy Chase, a character so loathsome that he seems to have been wholly subbed in from something like the modern remake of I Spit on Your Grave (2010). Travis Fimmel, by contrast, is a complete non-entity as Helweg, a character who ends up being even less three-dimensional than the rest of the paper-thin characters. In one of the film’s strangest moves, veteran weirdo and all-around awesome character actor Fisher Stevens gets what amounts to a cameo: they couldn’t have made him one of the test subjects?

There are plenty of tonal issues and more than a few plot holes (the resolution, in particular, makes less and less sense the more you think about it) but the uneven, generally OTT performances are definitely the crippling blow here. The film isn’t short on ideas, even if none of them are particularly interesting, but it’s impossible to take anything seriously when Whitaker is stomping around, bellowing, rolling his eyes and cracking prisoner skulls like he was a fairytale ogre. Writer/director Scheuring is probably best known as the creator of the TV series Prison Break, which would seem to make him a natural fit for something like this. There is plenty of “prison drama”-type brutality on display here (that urination scene will stick with you for a long, long time…trust me) but little of really seems to hit with any impact.

Minus issues like the overacting and over-reliance on cheesy slo-mo effects, The Experiment would be a well-made, if rather unexceptional prison-drama/thriller. As it stands, however, the film is, by turns, genuinely cringe worthy and unintentionally humorous. There are scattered moments of real power and impact but, for the most part, this has all been done before, to greater effect. Unless you’re an Adrien Brody or Forest Whitaker completest (or a prison-flick aficionado), skipping The Experiment is probably a safe bet: if the red light doesn’t go on after thirty minutes, you’ll know that you made the right choice.