Inhuman Nature IS Human Nature.
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
— Kurt Vonnegut, “Mother Night.”
Based on the infamous 1972 Stanford Prison Experiment, THE EXPERIMENT brings a group of men together in a mock prison, randomly choosing some to be guards and some to be prisoners. The result: everyone ends up belligerent, backbiting, exploitative, uncooperative, vicious, violent and pathologically inept at dealing with others; in other words, just like normal society.
We needed a prison experiment to tell us Mankind is no better than a cage full of simians? Didn’t we learn anything from Charlton Heston in PLANET OF THE APES?
Adrien Brody is Travis, a pacifist and peace activist recently out of a job, who answers a Wanted ad seeking volunteers, paying $1000 per day for two weeks.
At the check-in, Travis and a roomful of disparate characters are told the Rules of this mock prison by the lead researcher: No violence or the experiment is terminated; heed the Guards, abide by the Rules; watch the Red Light, which would light up if any of the rules were breached, terminating the experiment. Cameras would monitor the prison 24/7.
When Travis is screened by the researcher, he is asked “What about religion?” His answer: “No.”
Researcher: “Religion is not usually a yes or no question. People find a lot of gray areas to couch their answers.”
Travis: “Well, nothing gray here.”
Researcher: “So how do you base your ethical decisions?”
Travis (points to his chest): “Here.”
Excellent. Every one of us know what’s right and wrong. We don’t need a devil or god to tell us so. Life is circumstantial morality. One problem with Travis arcing from turn-the-other-cheek to mad dog at this movie’s violent climax is that it seems to demean his atheistic yet moral principles. A christian would immediately regard his violence (which is admittedly uncontrolled and vengeful) as an argument against being godless. “See, now if he had religion, he would have had a more sensible reaction!” Of course, that’s a straw man argument, because EVERYONE in the mock prison – god-fearing and godless alike – ends up slave to their raw human emotions.
Travis meets big, gentle Barris (Forest Whitaker), who goes from his sad doofus character to Idi Amin Dada within 24 hours of donning the Guard’s uniform.
Originally made in Germany as DAS EXPERIMENT, this American version retains the claustrophobia and spiraling madness of the experiment itself. A dramatic retelling of the actual Stanford Experiment, the movie is by no means a staid documentary, but an action thriller; characters are not meant to represent anyone in real life; the mood and tone is captured, of the human animal losing control of its carefully constructed façade of society.
And in this study of mankind, we discover the human animal is, in fact, as base and uncomplicated as any given “lower” animal. The Guards take pleasure in dehumanizing the Inmates, while the Inmates fall into a pattern of blindly following directives from the Guards. That’s the general rule – but there are exceptions. There are Inmates (like Travis) who do not suffer emasculation lightly and rebel against the tyranny of the guards, and there are Guards who do not succumb to hurting others for the sake of authority. Some viewers will argue that these exceptions are the traits that define our humanity. I differ – if they are exceptions, then by definition, they are NOT defining human traits.
Cam Gigandet is Guard Chase, who takes charge like an Aryan leader on the first day, while the other Guards look on, amused yet gaining audacity as Chase’s power plays against the Inmates are met with obeisance. All the while, Barris looks on, cocking his head like a bear wondering how to get into a pic-a-nic basket. In flashbacks we see Barris being browbeaten by his invalid mother; his coming arc is pretty obvious.
When Barris goes Amin and takes unbalanced control of all the Guards and Inmates with a bestial force, he uses the red light like every coward uses religion: “The red light is the only way that we can know…” whether we are going too far. If he is using violence and the red light doesn’t light up, it only affirms his cruelty and makes him feel empowered. He’s relying on an outside source to make his ethical decisions for him, therefore abrogating personal responsibility. When Barris is responsible for almost letting a man die, he points to the cameras: “Do you know what’s on the other side of those cameras? We’re being watched 24 hours a day by people who know what they are doing. If there was a chance that somebody would die, do you think they would let it happen?” Like the metaphor for an invisible god who hears nothing and does nothing while Its supposed creations kill each other in Its name. The religious stupidity of believing that some all-powerful It is watching us and if It doesn’t interject when we perpetrate evil, then what we’re doing must be right.
WE OURSELVES deep inside know right and wrong – even Republicans know it; they just choose to subsume it with ignorance and avarice. So instead of acting even more like beasts because the red light stays off, the Inmates and Guards should ask, “What kind of beast is behind the red light?” Just like religions should ask themselves, after countless centuries of spilling blood in the name of their gods that don’t lift a finger to help or hinder, “What kind of beast is behind our religion?” (No, He doesn’t work in mysterious ways. I’m guessing He doesn’t work at all.)
By Day 4, the violence has escalated to the Guards using their nightsticks violently, regularly. The red light stays off.
Clifton Collins Jr. is Inmate Nix, a real Aryan bigot, whose credo is “go along to get along,” so doesn’t question the irrationality of the Guards, just bides his time until payday. When Travis mentions the White Power tattoos on Nix’s arms, Nix shrugs it off, “You must think I’m somebody else.” Later, the Guards have terrorized everyone by chaining them to their cells. Travis unlocks Nix and a reckoning between the Guards and Inmates is imminent. Nix pulls off his t-shirt to reveal his body-ink of Nazi hate and – here’s the clincher – says the same line, but it has now become the funniest yet deadliest line in the movie, “These boys must think I’m somebody else!”
The movie has twisted the audience’s perceptions to root for a guy who in “normal” society would be regarded as a lunatic! And we embrace his lunacy as the pummeling begins. And who is pummeling the hardest? The man who said we need to turn the other cheek to evolve – Travis. (Brody commands a fiery intensity that we’d never guess could come from a guy so rail-thin and unassuming.) It is satis-fucking-faction. We vicariously feel every humiliation of the Inmates because most of us are dominated by authority figures indirectly and directly every day.
In Michael Moore’s documentary ROGER & ME, a laid-off assembly line auto worker becomes a prison guard. “I like the work much better.” Of course you do; from peon to pain giver. What’s not to like?
We only THINK we’ve evolved past fierce creatures. The most amazing fact of this movie and the actual Stanford Experiment is that conditions turned pear-shaped in so short a time; at Stanford, the planned two-week psychology experiment had to be terminated after only six days! What kind of loaded springs are we homo sapiens? Are we so fragile that placing us in a hostile environment – whether we’re good or bad – makes us gravitate toward hostile?
Truly we are merely just a planet of glorified apes! It’s a madhouse. A MADHOUSE!