On DVD: Oscar Winners' Experiment is Straight-to-DVD for a Reason

You might be wondering why a mano-a-mano thriller starring two recent Oscar winners couldn't jimmy its way into theaters somehow, but you watch The Experiment, and it all becomes clear. Really, do Oscars mean so much in acting-career terms anymore?

Russell Crowe might say sure while Jennifer Connelly and Gwyneth Paltrow may decide not, but it's obvious it's no longer the guaranteed B.O. rocket fuel it had been in the '70s for the likes of Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss. In this monkeys-in-a-barrel indie, we get Adrien Brody (an unlikely demi-star who has nevertheless ridden his Academy win nicely) and Forest Whitaker (who, as a 48-year-old black character actor with a droopy eyelid, couldn't expect too much of a fame boost from his Best Actor take), and though they act up a sweaty froth, the movie seemed fated for the straight-to-DVD shelves.

That's because this creepy, single-minded psychodrama is a fictionalized version of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, a 1971 study that situated college students as guards and prison inmates in a closed environment, to see what would happen within a 14-day span. Obviously, the thesis being explored was something about the innate brutality and political power-hunger of humankind, and boy, did the researchers get what they were looking for -- the test subjects only made it six days before essentially going apeshit, resorting to violence and creating permanent emotional damage in several participants. Many have been shocked by the results of the trial, but they shouldn't have been -- these were college students. What kind of asshole looks for an ethical baseline in a mob of 19-year-old guys confined for two weeks without beer or doobs?

Director Paul Scheuring's movie, adapted almost without significant changes from the German film Das Experiment, imagines a similar set-up recruiting out-of-work adult men -- oh, good -- including Brody's hipster and Whitaker's socially-awkward geek, the former as a prisoner who turns all Cool Hand Luke when the power structure begins to exert itself, and the latter as a guard who comes out of his shell with a little prodding and turns into an authority-crazed sociopath.

Everybody plays along at first because, they've been told, they'll lose their $14,000 fee if the rules are broken. As in life, we do the unpleasant and suffer humiliation for cash. But of course the roles are "internalized," as the psych-speak goes, and the guards start demanding respect, and prove willing to do anything to get it. Scheuring's money shot might be a pan down Whitaker's body after the first exercise of force, to his crotch, where his hand discovers a hard-on trouser tent. Clifton Collins Jr., as a glowering neo-Nazi ex-con, knows the score from the outset: Even before things get hairy, he tells Brody to lay low. But they're not guards, Brody tells him. Oh yes they are, Collins replies.

The role defines the man. It's a perversely fascinating subject, but the problem with The Experiment is that the experiment itself is of no larger consequence or purpose, and since we know the characters will go at each other like junkyard dogs, it's a predictable wallow in human (let's say masculine) savagery. Yet this is the third feature made about the experiment, with one more (directed by Christopher McQuarrie) rumored to be in production. Shepherded to the finishing line by no less than an astonishing 31 credited producers, Scheuring's film lacks for nothing except a reason to be.



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