Sunday, September 19, 2010

On DVD: "The Experiment"

You’ve heard the story: In 1971, a couple dozen men were involved in a two-week prison simulation, as part of a psychological experiment conducted by Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo. A handful of the men were chosen at random to serve as “guards”; the other men were their “prisoners.” Almost immediately, the groups clashed, with several of the “guards” exhibiting disturbingly sadistic behaviors, and the plug was pulled on the experiment only six days into its intended 14. The “Stanford prison experiment” has inspired documentaries, television (including episodes of Veronica Mars and Life), and books—including the novel Black Box, which was made into a German film called Das Experiment (unseen by me), which has now been remade into an American film titled, simply, The Experiment, adapted and directed by Paul Scheuring.

Scheuring’s film centers on Travis (Adrien Brody), who has recently lost his job in a nursing home and is in need of some quick scratch. The ad in the paper promises $1,000 per day for participation in an experiment that is billed as “necessary” and “safe.” At the interviews, he strikes up a rapport with Barris (Forest Whitaker), a soft-spoken older gent who lives with his mother. Both men get in, but Travis is a “prisoner” and Barris is a “guard”—one who almost immediately becomes drunk with power (provisional though it may be).

The central conflict, the tense battle of wills between Travis and Barris, is the film’s best quality—even if the latter’s transition from a suit-clad Bible-reader to a whiskey-swilling sadist seems to skip several steps. Whitaker is also forced to play the picture’s least subtle moment; just as we’re admiring how accurately they’ve conveyed the psychological makeup of the guards (the douchebags rise immediately to the top), we see that the first flexing of his authority has given Barris an actual raging hard-on (close-up of his bulging pants). Literal much?

As a director, Scheuring has an assured sense of style; the opening credits—which intercut violent nature footage, documentary clips of deplorable human violence, and creepy music—get a good icky vibe going, and a later sequence uses flash cuts and shock edits of more disturbing imagery to frighteningly good effect. He plays up those oogy moments throughout the picture, which is well constructed and slickly photographed—all smooth dolleys and unblinking close-ups.

But the script has some problems that his stylish direction can’t quite overcome. The expositional devices—into-camera interviews and character flashbacks—are dusty, the supporting characters range from forgettable to obnoxiously tiresome (I’m looking at you, Benjy the comic book guy), and the ending is a disaster—though the brute force of the startling climax generates real, jittery suspense (even while we’re asking why no one’s pulled the plug), the closing dialogue is entirely too on the nose, and the awkwardly grafted “happy ending” is a bad fit.

Frankly, the picture’s biggest problem is Whitaker, who turns in another of his overheated B-movie specials; you wish he’d quit acting so damned much and just do the role. Every line is accompanied by a shifty eye move, three twitches, and a pregnant pause—there was a time, wasn’t there, when he was natural and believable in films? Up against this assemblage of tics and bellows, Brody wisely underplays; he comes out of the thing smelling pretty rosy as a result.

The complaints that can be registered against The Experiment are plentiful, but those problems are mostly glossed over by the tight construction and the story’s inherently compelling qualities—it’s an oft-repeated and frankly fascinating tale, and the film moves too fast to get hung up on the fumbles. But that taut pace also keeps the picture from penetrating, from truly exploring the rich psychological territory of the material.

Considering the talent involved, the high-concept story, and the credible production values, it’s a bit of a surprise to see a film like The Experiment go straight to DVD—at least on first glance. But distributor concerns become more apparent when viewing the finished product, which plays mostly as a series of missed opportunities. It’s a decent potboiler, but not much more.

"The Experiment" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 21. For full A/V details, read this review at DVD Talk.

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