Kristen Stewart continues her attempts to shrug her mainstream Twilight fame with Camp X-Ray, a film in which she likely assumed she would be able to prove herself as a serious actor. However, while Stewart’s performance isn’t exactly Oscar-worthy, it’s the film itself that lets her down in the end. Despite her best efforts and the talents of A Separation’s Peyman Moaadi, this character-driven effort is one of the noteworthy disappointments of Sundance 2014.
The film, helmed by first time director and screenwriter Peter Sattler, follows Stewart as Private Amy Cole, a guard at Guantanamo Bay. Cole quickly sets herself apart as an upstanding soldier but fails to follow one unwritten rule: Don’t let the detainees get under your skin. It’s not long before she finds herself in a friendship with a man named Ali (Moaadi), who has been detained for eight years. A translator, Ali spends his time convincing Cole to speak with him, and they slowly bond. Their friendship causes Cole to rethink her position as a guard and what it means to “defend freedom.”
Admittedly, Stewart’s performance in Camp X-Ray is some of her best work yet, but that’s not to say she is astounding here. In fact, her performance feels almost inadequate when compared to Moaadi’s. The actor absolutely sells every line he’s given and really shines in his role. Supporting actors Lane Garrison and Joseph Julian Soria, as guards Randy and Rico, perform well here too, though the characters themselves add little to the film.
While Randy is essentially a plot device who helps to develop Cole’s character through aggressive sexual advances, Rico seems to exist almost entirely to explain off-screen plot details to Cole over lunch. Few characters are given much development outside of Cole and Ali, which would be acceptable if the two of them weren’t so quickly and conveniently pigeonholed through references to Silence of the Lambs and Harry Potter.
Camp X-Ray mostly shies away from making any sort of political statement and focuses on the relationship between Cole and Ali. It’s a decent story about human interaction, but the film decidedly rejects the opportunity to take a position on Gitmo, outside of an expository line or two about the difference between a “detainee” and a “prisoner.” Guantanamo, by the way, is a word that only gets mentioned a few times, and the film is devoid of any mention of Guantanamo-events grounded in reality.
Disappointingly, Camp X-Ray also avoids delving too deeply into an investigation of women in the military. Though the limited screen time shared between Cole and Randy provides some of the script’s most thought-provoking material, I would rather watch a just-okay drama on sexual harassment in the military than a just-okay drama about Guantanamo that isn’t really about Guantanamo. Besides, plenty of the detainee-related material in Camp X-Ray can be found better investigated in films like Zero Dark Thirty.
Camp X-Ray does more or less succeed in holding your attention as simply a story about a prisoner and a guard. Moaadi captivates as Ali, doing his best to sell a detainee whose reasons for being locked up are hardly ever even approached in the script. For her part, Stewart does exceed the expectations of her naysayers, although it’s still difficult not to compare her to better performances from actresses in similar roles.
While it does have its moments, there’s a lot of wasted potential here, as Camp X-Ray falls flat when attempting to approach larger issues of human rights. Instead, it relies on pop culture references and cheesy metaphors to speak for its characters.