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'The Stanford Prison Experiment' (R)

The Stanford prison experiment still ranks as one of the world’s most controversial psychological experiments, even though it took place in 1971.

Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo wanted to find out what would happen if ordinary male students were treated as if they were in the penal system. Half were assigned as prisoners, the other half as guards, and a basement block of rooms unused during summer break was turned into a makeshift prison. Within 24 hours, the place became a collegiate Lord of the Flies.

It’s now the basis for Miami native Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s straightforward yet gripping and claustrophobic The Stanford Prison Experiment, a film that does little to reinforce one’s faith in humankind. Some of the students are too willing to knuckle under to authority, while others seem only too happy to cruelly exercise it — all for $15 a day, the salary Zimbardo paid his jailbird guinea pigs.

Billy Crudup is Zimbardo, a man who loses himself in the experiment as much as any of the students. As he and his cohorts covertly watch the young men descend into emotional savagery, he betrays a creepy sense of satisfaction.

As good as Crudup is, the film belongs to the boys. They are played by a group of up-and-coming, buzzed-about actors mostly known for more young-adult and comedy roles.

But Chris Sheffield (The Maze Runner), Ezra Miller (Trainwreck, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Tye Sheridan (Mud, Joe), Moises Arias (The Kings of Summer), Ki Hong Lee (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and especially Michael Angarano (The Knick), who plays the cocky head guard nicknamed John Wayne, make for a terrific ensemble.

The Stanford Prison Experiment isn’t easy viewing, but it’s hard to ignore.

Cast: Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Moises Arias, Ezra Miller.

Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez.

Screenwriter: Tim Talbott.

An IFC Films release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual references, abusive behavior. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores, Cosford Cinema.