Imagine: you're in the comfort and safety of your home. You're in the middle of a routine. You're doing the dishes. Maybe you're brushing your teeth. Perhaps you're praying. That's when a black bag is shoved over your head, and you are swept away--without warning--to a prison where you will be treated like a beast and held for an undetermined time. This is the harrowing beginning of the Guantanamo Bay drama Camp X-Ray, which inexplicably stars Twilight's Kristen Stewart.
Here, she plays a soldier who has gone from Iraq's battle zone to guard duty at Guantanamo Bay, where there are no prisoners, just detainees who aren't subject to the Geneva Convention. Her introduction to this new assignment is a violent takedown of a detainee, wherein four well-armored soldiers wrestle an angry inmate to the ground while cursing at him. After a kick to the face, a smiling peer snarks, "Welcome to Gitmo." Mocking and sexual harassment soon follows, which she handles with a cutting retort and nervous smirk. For years, Stewart has been mocked for her tight-lip countenance and signature smirks. But both now play as a tough veneer to a young woman who will do battle with her conscious to serve her country.
Yett this is not her story alone.
Written and directed by Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray is a disturbing drama that centers on the friendship that forms between Stewart's soldier and a disruptive detainee. There are many barriers between them. She's instructed from the start to remove her name tag, "Do not let these guys know anything about you. Do not let them get inside your head." She is to only call detainees by their assigned numbers, never their given names. She sees them as we viewers do--only through the wire-laced and narrow window of their heavy, metal cell doors. But Detainee 471 (Peyman Moaadi of the Oscar-winning Iranian drama A Separation) will not be ignored.
At first, he entreats her to talk to him about Harry Potter. He's a big fan. He's read all the books but the last. In fact, he's been waiting for two years in this small cell, hoping to learn what happens after Snape's secret is revealed. When she tries to ignore him, he lashes out, bellowing, ""I bet you don't have the last Harry Potter on purpose--to drive us crazy!"
This conversation is one of the many thoughtful details Sattler has laced into his debut feature. Some situations can feel too big to imagine fully. For most of us, it's hard to really understand what it'd like to be ripped away from your life with no warning and put in a cell indefinitely. But these little moments, where the detainee speaks of the frustration of waiting for this book--this conclusion that he needs so desperately--it grounds Camp X-Ray's bigger dramatic arc.
His name is Ali. He calls her Blondie. Ali wants to connect to Blondie over a book. But it is over their shared dehumanization at Gitmo that they find common ground. This place is where their names are stripped away, and where their humanity might be, as he is treated like a mongrel and she is pushed to play tormentor. It's a premise that could have played as didactic. But Sattler's story is not interested in the big politics of Gitmo's existence. Instead, Camp X-Ray examines what such an operation does to the "us" and "them" there on a personal level, offering an intimate and poignant portrait of humanity in a heartless place.
For Stewart this is a definite stretch outside the moody teen dramas she's known for. It's still a tight-lipped turn, but a gripping one. Her eyes brim with rage and tears at moments, and her pain is contagious. Hers is a solid portrayal that displays how Stewart is growing in her craft, learning to convey great inner turmoil through subtle shifts in her face. But this is Moaadi's movie.
Even through that narrow strip of glass, he radiates charisma. So much so that when he lashes out--in a pretty repulsive way--toward Blondie, you're forced to wonder what would push him there, rather than being pushed away from him. "You Americans treat us like animal. Okay! I am animal," he screams. And to see this transformation from a charming Harry Potter fan to a man seething with vengeful fury is heartbreaking and thought provoking. In its nerve-rattling climax, the camera switches its side of the door between detainee and guard. We are placed in the cell with Ali, while Blondie pleads with him through that damned small window.
It's a scene that's riveting on a level of emotion and suspense. You look at these two, and wonder how they ended up here. The same could be said of the actors who stare at each other through the glass. One is a daring but largely unknown performer who won acclaim for a a foreign-language film that was controversial in his Iran, but heralded in the U.S. The other is a teen queen who has presumably turned to indie film to earn her cred as a thespian, not just a celebrity. This meta context certainly bolsters the charge of that final scene, where reversals in action and shot choice build to a conclusion I won't dare spoil. But what makes this movie--that is earnest, though at times clunky in its plotting--are two remarkable performances. These two onscreen together seems ludicrous at first glance. But like their characters, they create something powerful and rewarding.
Admittedly, there is little to Camp X-Ray outside of this central relationship. A subplot involving a fellow soldier who goes from Alpha-male love interest to bullying antagonist feels half-baked at best. But when focused on Ali and Blondie, this movie is completely compelling. Stewart steps up to create a layered and provocative portrait of a soldier conflicted by her orders and her moral code. Moaadi gives an incredible depth to a man pushed to the brink of sanity, clutching desperately for hope and moments of tenderness. Together, they deliver a message that may not be welcomed to many, but is boldly delivered and brilliantly acted.