A Failed 'Experiment', Despite Brody and Whitaker

Directed by: Paul Scheuring, Runtime: 96 minutes
Grade: D

The concept behind The Experiment is the very definition of intriguing: a group of twenty-some-odd everyday men are given the opportunity to make $1,000 a day for living in a mock prison environment, where they're separated into guards and prisoners. It provokes quite a few questions, namely how long it'll take for the "guards" to resort to violence and what role each individual will take on, and could prove to be a compelling psychological examination of the everyday man's ability to endure the circumstances. Yet that's the very issue that I have with Paul Scheuring's picture. Nothing feels authentic, from the cartoonish characters to the speed in which things mushroom out of control, and it effectively neuters any thought-provoking point about humanity that might've been made within its semi-thrilling, lazily edgy approach.

Remade from a 2001 German film inspired by Mario Giordano's novel "Black Box", The Experiment stars Adrien Brody as Travis, a government caregiver recently laid off amid the harsh economic climate. In order to travel to India for a much-needed soul-searching trip with his new girlfriend, played by Maggie Grace of LOST fame, he decides to participate in the aforementioned experiment after spotting the opportunity in a newspaper ad. Rigorous questioning ensues with Travis and his co-applicants, including a timid well-dressed man named Barris (Forest Whitaker) and a surly convict-looking brute (Clifton Collins Jr.), where the administrators monitor their reactions to videotapes in an eerie Clockwork Orange fashion while verifying their characters based on inquiries about faith and violence. Some participants are cut, leaving twenty-four (24) to be partitioned into the oppressors and the oppressed.

Though rushed and haphazard at the start, hastily cramming the subjects into the faux-prison to get to the meat of the matter, The Experiment still maintains a slight level of interest in the premise as it approaches the gritty, ascetic confines of the experiment's location. But watching how the selected group of guys are segmented -- a testosterone-driven hornball named Chase (Cam Gigandet), tweaked goth Helwig (Travis Fimmel), and the clearly-unstable Barris going to the guards, while Travis and the likes of a socially-awkward, diabetic artist Benjy (Ethan Cohn) and effeminate, swoop-haired Oscar (Jason Lew) go to the inmates -- immediately raises a red flag. It dilutes the film's interest in human interaction as it skews the overall playing field, gearing the film more towards exploit than significance. I suppose that it could be part of a pro-inmate message about unhinged thugs being cast as regulators, but that idea isn't ever realized.

The problems in The Experiment really start with the red light. Many of us, especially guys, have had this conversation: "Sure, I'd do this, but for X amount of money and under the assurance that I'd be safe". That's exactly the purpose of a red light and surveillance cameras monitoring the subjects, to ensure relative safety, as well as the deciding factor in the film's effectiveness. All the inmates and guards must a) abide by the rules of their respective roles, and b) not cause any physical harm to each other, or they'll all lose the money once the light turns on. A fear of losing $14,000 replaces a fear for one's safety, which contorts the inmate-guard dynamic into a rattled, unconvincing mess that revolves around how much "harmless" submission the prisoners can endure for "a payday". It's when the rules are obeyed and broken on a whim that the light's presence becomes an absurd and unreliable driver.

This idea of psychological obedience to the red light still might have worked had Scheuring presented the characters as authentic beings instead of blunt-headed, one-dimensional stereotypes, who further distance The Experiment from validity into the realm of crude, thrill-based exploitation. Seeing as how the "strongest" and most-unhinged of the subjects were chosen as the dictators of order, the guards predictably exert sadistic force on their inmates; in that, the perverse and demented escalate their efforts to keep the prisoners in line, with Barris -- a man with clear power issues derived from his relationship with his mother -- taking the lead. Admittedly, Forest Whitaker delivers a strong outing as Barris, channeling his deranged Last King of Scotland ferocity into another unique turn, but the one-way hostility of Chase's sex-driven mania and goth Helwig's toady abrasion wash out the picture's realistic effect.

The Experiment's biggest issue comes in the irrational rate of conflict and character escalation, namely how rapidly everyone flies off the handle in accordance with the experiment's threshold on compliance. With suspense in mind instead of practicality, director Scheuring orchestrates a chaotic zenith to the degradation and volatility that unevenly snaps together with the picture's aims, presumably ignoring some of the red light's rules for the sake of the on-looking experimenters -- and for fleeting, wicked gratification on our end. Adrien Brody still maintains electricity in a riff on his Jack Starks characters from The Jacket amid the vile mischief, while Clifton Collins Jr. anchors the film as a weathered, obedient ex-convict. Yet they're not enough to ground the film, one lost in its inability to clarify on some erratic cherry-picked rules, broken logic, and shackled-down meaningfulness.

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