MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama Thriller/ Stars: Adrien Brody, Forest Whitaker, Cam Gigandet, Clifton Collins, Jr., Fisher Stevens, Maggie Grace, Ethan Cohn, Travis Fimmel, David Banner, Jason Lew, Damien Leake/Runtime: 96 minutes
I think it is safe to say that if you want a truly riveting study on what it means to be human then I have quite the intriguing idea for you. An idea that takes the form of rounding up a group of seemingly normal guys, place them in a makeshift prison, appoint some to be “guards”, label the rest “inmates”, set up a few rules, pop some popcorn, kick back in your favorite lounge chair, and enjoy the show that unfolds. Or something to that effect. Indeed this is was the basic idea behind the slice of cinematic pie I am reviewing today, 2010’s The Experiment, a slice of cinematic pie written and helmed by a man named Paul Scheuring who, incidentally, was also the guy behind a popular TV show on Fox known as Prison Break, based on a novel from a guy named Mario Giordano, and inspired by an actual prison experiment conducted by a man named Phillip Zimbardo in the early 70s. Suffice it to say then that you would think that since Prison Break was a riveting if not shaky every now and then TV show during the time it aired, you would think that this helmer would be able to bring to another slice of entertainment dealing with the day to day interactions one has with life in prison a degree of skill that might otherwise be severely lacking from the final product. Of course you know what they say about assumptions and nowhere is this truer than it is here. That is because despite the presence of both an intriguing narrative and a quite potent cast that has the ability to give a good performance with the right material, this is one slice of cinematic pie that gives off the vibe of being unrealistic, severely lacking in the resonance department, and as such was shuffled straight to DVD purgatory where it weaved its way through various free movie websites and 5-dollar DVD bins before finding its way to me who actually felt compelled to talk to you about it (oh joy).
The plot is as follows: The Experiment starts its story as we see that a man by the name of Travis is sadly in the middle of being let go from his job working at a home for older folks not because he’s terrible at it, but because the state’s budget slashing means someone has to take the fall and it seems that he is that unlucky individual. To that end, we see that he is hurting for a little moolah to help ease the blow until he is able to bounce back. It is in this desperation that we see our intrepid hero make eye contact with an ad requesting men to engage in a, get this, experiment that lasts for 14 days and will reward those who participate no less than 14 grand. Suffice it to say that we see this is an offer Travis is unable to ignore and one that a lot of other men are unable to either chief among them a man Travis interacts with by the name of Barris who is both steadfast in his faith and lives with/ takes care of his mother. To that end we see our intrepid hero, Mr. Barris, and some other men are chosen from the significantly bigger group of potential candidates to participate and are at long last told the particulars of what this experiment will entail. It seems that the men will be split into a pair of groups: guards and inmates and from there spend 2 weeks with no supervision (great idea that one) within the walls of a makeshift prison whilst engaged in the typical structure and hierarchy that one thinks of when it comes to such places. Oh and there are some rules to be followed and if they are not then the experiment will immediately come to an abrupt end and no one gets paid. However what starts as the “guards” exerting their authority in a manner that seems quite common including the ordering of the “inmates” to engage in relatively lax physical endeavors quickly starts turning ugly as we see the power begin going to the guards’, especially Barris’, head and transform them into controlling and power-thirsty maniacs with no moral scruples whatsoever in regards to how far they’re willing to go in order to keep the “inmates” in line thus leaving it up to the “inmates” led by Travis to make a choice: continue to put up with the ever-escalating abuse and possibly die yet get paid or give in to their baser instincts and show that they aren’t worthy of this treatment and run the risk of not getting paid, but be permitted to live not as animals, but men?
Now when giving this movie a first glance, I can understand if you perceive this film to be a smooth and performed well slice of cinematic pie that rivetingly aims to give us an analysis of mankind at the roots through a dynamic that puts those in authority on a collision course with those who have had their rights taken from them and their needs that would typically be honored in a civilized world horrifically denied. Yet whilst this slice of cinematic pie does do an admirable job at trying to showcase this, it still sadly all comes tumbling down to a void of both resonance on a pathos level as well as in regards to how believable it is. Make no mistake dear reader it isn’t that the narrative in this is terrible, the main idea that forms the crux of it horrible, or the carrying out of the narrative shoddily done. Rather, it is the fact that this film doesn’t really to do anything worthwhile with what it has us learn as the movie goes along. To put it in a way that ties in quite nicely with the film, this movie is like a science experiment where the results are witnessed and recorded, but never studied and utilized in any way that is meaningful. Thus the movie falls flat in finding a genuine reason for what it shows us as well as its analysis of what it means to be human that goes beyond showcasing what you could predict way in advance will occur before you even start to watch the film. On top of that what does occur doesn’t seem realistic and instead feels like it has been boosted for dramatic purposes and as a result everything about this film, but especially how horrifically devolved the men in this situation become doesn’t feel honest at best and downright phony and unrealistic at worst.
In addition to everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I also think it’s safe to say that this slice of cinematic pie has the potential to irk some viewers the wrong way due to how it showcases for the viewer a quite passionately religious guy becoming the antithesis of just what his faith preaches in practically every way possible. I mean it says something when a character played by Forest Whitaker of all people is quite likable at the beginning of a movie only to become one of the most despised by the end of it. Indeed Barris is presented to us in the beginning as a decent and upstanding man who is always at the ready either to protect or show off his faith. Yet after mere hours of being a guard in this experiment, his faith not only deserts him, but instead leaves him stranded on the side of the road as he has decided to instead take up with the surge of power that this position has managed to afford him. Indeed it’s the idea that this man’s entire way of seeing things in life could be altered that quickly which proves to be the most dishonest part of this film. I mean maybe given more time and if the situation were presented in a more realistic manner than perhaps I could believe this change of character was legit, but as presented here it’s not just unrealistic, but also a low-key blow to what this slice of cinematic pie views as the failing of religion to not only propel a man through a rough patch, but also stand by his side during a flimsy experiment that isn’t genuine in the first place. On the other side of the coin, we see that the character played by Adrien Brody is a pacifist who has not even a hint of a religious perspective as the “hero” of the movie, but even this guy sees his system of beliefs quickly fade away once within the prison walls. Thus I think it is safe to say that it is how dishonest this whole movie is that is what proves to be the torpedo which annihilates the more immersive thematic concepts at play. Concepts such as what would we do to make a quick buck, and what would you do if you were all of a sudden given power you did nothing to earn over your fellow man to name a few. Indeed those are actually timely and intriguing questions for a movie like this to ask; it’s just infuriating that this particular film is too dishonest to give us an answer that has any kind of honesty attached to it in the first place.
All in all I think it is safe to say that the 2010 slice of cinematic pie that is The Experiment is one that manages to not only begin with quite a bit of promise, but also has quite a bit of promise in some of its technical ingredients as well. Indeed here is a movie that has not only a helmer who possess quite a bit of solid work in the realm of viewable entertainment set in a prison, but it also has a few reliable performers bringing the story to life, a premise that has the potential to be both riveting and taut, and an opening that actually draws you in fairly well. Sadly, from that point on not only does everything lose its much needed sense of integrity, but it all nearly manages to completely fall apart. Yes film helmer Paul Scheuring does show off a degree of technical skill, I mean for all the flaws I found with this film it IS well-made and somewhat riveting at certain points throughout, this slice of cinematic pie is still never able to locate what should have more significant resonance in terms of morality and spirituality in equal measure. Rather, this film’s narrative is one which operates with a bold and gutsy hand to the face for anything that does not serve its own agenda, an agenda incidentally that seems constructed on the idea of utilizing unnecessary violent content in order to show just how people can lose their humanity when in an environment where some are given power over a majority, that you can’t help but walk away from this slice of cinematic pie upset not because the actors are terrible or because the film is just downright ugly to look at, but rather because you feel like you just got told one great big lie and you’re just now catching on to how bad the lie really was. I mean yes I can concede that perhaps this slice of cinematic pie is rooted in actual legitimate data that hints at people doing the kinds of things that occur in this film after a short period of time in a situation like this, but at the same time aren’t the correctional institutions and their employees on this planet by and large void of the necessary ingredients for things getting this far out of control? Suffice it to say that if this film is trying to make an argument to the contrary then it could have fooled me. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Experiment “2010” a solid 2.5 out of 5.