Camp X-Ray August 5, 2015
Kristen Stewart is growing up. Not by posing for Playboy like a tired ‘90s sitcom dolly, not by undergoing a nail biting scandal, but by taking on film roles that at once amplify her talents and provide yet another reason to forget about the shit-stained days of Twilight. Popular opinion suggests we should tease her for her lip-biting habit, her emotional flamboyance as obnoxious as Keanu Reeves'. But I’ve long thought of her as a next big thing in the making. She’s a sort of Hollywood rebel, drawing us in with her naturalistic acting style and then managing to punch us in the gut with her ability to undermine comfortability.
Since the incredibly bad vampire franchise ended in 2012, Stewart’s been on a mission. Not wanting to end up a forgotten figure of teen mag past, she’s lined up movies which stretch her ability and head in the opposite direction of Hollywood phoniness. She began with the unevenly received On the Road (2012), then continued with Camp X-Ray and Still Alice, finally hitting her stride with 2015’s stellar Clouds of Sils Maria, which won her the French Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Having been enormously impressed with her characterization in the latter, I sought out Camp X-Ray in a sort of daze, thirsty for more risk-taking from the under-appreciated actress. Though hardly as much of a success as her other game-changing films, Camp X-Ray is a well-acted character study which gives her a role that, once again, places her directly out of her comfort zone and results in another excellent performance.
She plays Amy Cole, a recent Army recruit stationed in Guantanamo Bay as a detainee guard. Originally, Cole joined the service in hopes to make herself into something more than the other nobodies of her small town. But as she gets used to her new line of work, she begins to realize that not all things about the military are as black and white as she once figured them to be. Through her monotonous duties, Cole unexpectedly strikes up a friendship with one of the detainees, the charismatic Ali (a memorable Peyman Moaadi), who hails from Germany and doesn’t seem to be the sort of bad guy she had once imagined to be locked up in such an infamous prison. Her fellow guards have no time harboring cruelty to the men they so furiously monitor — but Cole, more sensitive than she ever thought, notices that her unwanted sympathies may end up hindering what’s expected of her.
The writing and directing debut of Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray is a humanistic drama snug in all the right places, stirring the pot of military ethics and questioning just how far the government has gone to ensure the safety of the United States. Sattler, though, doesn’t dwell on controversy, instead touching upon red-button topics with grace. Subtly bringing up xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia, he allows the viewer to see the situation through Cole’s eyes. For the most part, his minimalist screenplay hits all the right notes, save for the last ten minutes, which make for a rather disappointing ending. His directorial style, unaffected and observant, exquisitely suits the material. Stewart’s skillful solemness complements his quirks.
Camp X-Ray finds its faults in the staginess of it all. Though it would be a strong play if stage-bound, it doesn’t have quite enough fire to capture our interest for nearly two-hours. But what it has to say along the way, supplemented by the compelling forces of Stewart and Moaadi, is enough to make it solid. I just wish Sattler wouldn’t have chosen the easy way out during the final act and had instead taken a route less traveled. B-