The first concern of every parent when their son or daughter enters the military is where will they be stationed? War torn Afghanistan, perhaps? Iraq? Army private fist class Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) is sent to neither. In the new drama Camp X-Ray, Cole’s assignment is to be a guard at Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
At the film’s opening we see the now familiar sight of the World Trade Center buildings on fire viewed from the point of view of a TV news report. After that, three men – future detainees – wearing hoods and noise reducing head phones are shipped by air to what will be their future home for a lengthy, indefinite period; Camp Delta. From there we jump forward eight years when a routine at the camp has long been established. A new batch of army recruits land on Guantanamo, ready for their assignment.
“You are not here to stop them from escaping,” Corporal Ransdell (Lane Garrison) explains to the newbies shortly after they first arrive, pointing out that the walls of the camp do that part of the job for them. “You are here to prevent them from dying.” He goes on to explain that the detainees are never to be called prisoners. Prisoners are subject to the Geneva Convention; detainees are not. “You can talk to them, but do not let them know anything about you,” the corporal continues. “Do not let them get into your head.”
As the film slowly unfolds, PFC Cole’s duties on her extensive shifts range from walking from cell to cell, peering in through the small windows to make sure each detainee is where they should be, to handing out library books to help the detainees pass the endless hours of boredom. When Cole offers a book to one certain detainee and is spat upon, her corporal dismisses it. “These guys don’t like girls,” he explains. “It’s an Arab thing.”
It’s when Cole reaches the cell of detainee Ali Amir (an expressive and ultimately sympathetic Payman Maadi) that a conversation begins. Cole is reticent to enter into any kind of communication beyond what book the detainee would like to read, but Ali – starved of any form of interaction with others – asks question after question in order to get the young private to talk.
Ali wants the final Harry Potter novel. He’s read all the others and wants to know how the saga ends, but it’s the one book absent from the library’s limited collection. From there, a questionable relationship develops, reminiscent in some ways of how Hannibal Lechter might have slyly communicated with the next generation Clarice Starling, here made all the more obvious by a direct Lechter reference not to mention that movie buffs may remember it was Stewart who played Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room.
“No one gives you a medal when you do it right,” Cole’s corporal reminds the young recruit. “You get a demotion if you get it wrong.” And with each conversation Cole exchanges with the persistent Ali, the newbie crawls closer to getting it potentially wrong.
As written by writer/direct Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray slowly unfolds in the manner of a two-person play, a one-act drama perhaps where the detainee may be the one incarcerated in a cramped, confined area, but from his point of view when looking through that small window at the private on the other side, in her way Cole appears to be just as confined.
The relationship takes its toll on Cole in small ways. Babysitting detainees is in all probability not what she joined the military to do, but being there, seeing these people incarcerated, continually deprived of sleep, day after day, week after week, and year after endless year with no end in sight, causes the private to reflect on these Muslims in a way she had presumably never before considered.
Kristen Stewart has to be commended for tackling such an unglamorous role a she begins a new phase of her career away from the glamor of the Twilight saga. The seemingly emotionless front her character has to intentionally project works in the performer’s favor, but in her off-duty moments in scenes where she Skypes with her mom (Julia Duffy) or exchanges conversation with fellow recruits, that impassive exterior doesn’t appear to change all that much and you can’t help wondering what a more experienced actor might have done with the same script under the same direction.
The issue with Stewart is in the eyes. Her character may have that dark, sunken look indicating weariness and someone bordering on becoming haunted but the eyes themselves are empty. With the benefit of close-ups and the ability to see a performer as intimately as the screen allows, acting with just a glance can convey the kind of emotion that words and actions can’t always express. At this point with Stewart there’s still nothing there, but at the very least we should salute her for trying. As it stands, with a running time of almost two hours, in a film where your interest has to be maintained by the performances of the two principle leads and only one convinces, Camp X-Ray remains something less than compelling.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 117 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)