How often do two Oscar winners star together in a film?
Doesn’t happen a lot.
How often does one Oscar winner piss on another Oscar winner on camera? I know there’s that one notorious deleted scene in “The Lion in Winter” but other than that, “The Experiment” starring Adrien Brody (the piss-ee) and Forest Whitaker (the pisser) is a cinematic first. What kind of a world do we live in where this sort of epochal moment in the history of motion pictures can’t get a theatrical release? Dark times, my friends. We live in dark times.
Directed by Paul Scheuring
Tagline: When an experiment goes wrong, one man gets pissed off. (NOTE: This may only be the film’s tagline in my mind. Don’t quote me on it.)
Tweetable Plot Synopsis: An American remake of “Das Experiment,” a fictionalized version of the Stanford Prison Experiment (http://bit.ly/cSFl3S).
Salable Elements: Well-respected source material; a fascinating and infamous real life psychological experiment; two Academy Award winners facing off in a glorious scenery chewing contest.
Biggest Success: The Stanford Prison Experiment involved a bunch of people made to act like prisoners and guards in a jail. It was supposed to last for two weeks, but the people running it had to shut it down after just six days because all the participants basically lost their minds and started behaving like monsters. Which is a great jumping off point for a lurid movie about the evil that men do. And credit screenwriter and director Paul Scheuring for having the cojones not to pull his punches. Forest Whitaker’s Barris and the rest of the guards are almost cartoonishly despicable people. I’m sure at some point in the development process someone looked at Scheuring’s script and wanted more “explanation” for Barris’ swift transformation from meek churchgoer to brutal prison dictator. But it only took six days for real people to descend into chaos and madness, so Scheuring is only staying faithful to reality. Showing Barris pissing on the ringleader of the prisoners (Brody) might seem excessive. But the actual behavior of the Stanford subjects was excessive. Okay, maybe not pissing on each other excessive, but it’s a movie. It’s got to shock us somehow.
Biggest Failure: “The Experiment” kicks off with a really tired cliche, the montage of nature footage that showcases brutal animal behavior and then slowly gives way to documentary footage that showcases brutal human behavior. By this point, we all know the lesson we’re supposed to take away from scenes like this: that deep down, we are all like stock footage. Wait, that’s not right. Sorry, animals; we are all like animals. I’m not arguing that the theme doesn’t have bearing on the “The Experiment.” I just wish Scheuring had come up with a more creative way of introducing it.
Best Moment: Instead, Scheuring focused his creativity on coming up with outlandish ways to externalize Whitaker’s transformation. In the movie’s most memorable scene, Barris basks in the glory of quelling his first prisoner rebellion. Standing alone in the jailhouse bathroom he looks himself up and down in the mirror, reveling in his cruelty. At that moment, he notices something unexpected in his pants, and looks down to size it up: he has an erection.
Yes, threatening and intimidating innocent people gives this God-fearing man a murder boner, and though a couple of crotchways glances from Whitaker would have gotten the point across, Scheuring leaves nothing to the imagination and provides a helpful, hilarious closeup of Barris’ pitched tent.
Does the moment work in the film? Not quite, though it’s good for a laugh. But, again, putting it in in the first place requires some serious, erm, balls. And that I admire.
I Question: Scheuring’s decision not to show us the people running this experiment while it’s going on. In some ways, it makes sense to keep the camera away from Dr. Archaleta (Fisher Stevens) and the rest of the scientists. For one thing, it invites us to share in the inmates’ sense of claustrophobia. And it also enhances our identification with the guards, because they’ve been told they must keep the prisoners in line and respond to their outbursts with “commensurate punishment” without being provided any clear instructions what makes a punishment commensurate. Their only clue is a red light that will illuminate 30 minutes after prisoner misbehavior if said misbehavior hasn’t been adequately addressed. If the light goes on, the experiment is over and everyone involved forfeits the $14,000 owed to them for their participation. Never showing us Dr. Archaleta after the experiment begins feeds into our shared sense of anxiety over that red light and helps us understand, at least initially, the motivation of the guards.
But a movie that makes this many stabs at addressing the social and moral implications of this experiment — the animal stock footage, repeated conversations on the subject between Brody and his cellmate Nix (an underutilized Clifton Collins Jr.) — really ought to engage its who and why. Dr. Archaleta promises that the experiment will be terminated the instant any prisoner is injured, but that’s not ultimately how things work out. The audience can’t help but wonder why. “The Experiment” makes no attempt to explain.
Worthy of a Theatrical Release? Tough to say. On the one hand, this movie has several hallmarks of a good midnight movie: great actors giving big campy performances, tinges of horror and even torture porn; murder boners. On the other hand, “The Experiment”‘s pretensions — the “serious” investigation into the human condition, some better-than average cinematography and production design — wouldn’t do its any favors on the cult film circuit. What you’re left with is an entertaining but weird little movie that doesn’t really belong anywhere. Which is probably how a film starring two Oscar winners wound up going straight to DVD in the first place.
For Further Viewing: watch the trailer for the documentary about the real Stanford Prison Experiment, “Quiet Rage.”