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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Camp X-Ray (Blu-ray)
Camp X-Ray (Blu-ray)
MPI Home Video // R // June 2, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Tyler Foster | posted June 23, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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More and more often, I feel I find myself encountering movies that are founded around a single question, generally one about some certain aspect of human nature. All art is a search for some sort of meaning in the world or our lives, but there is a distinct sense that the filmmaker came up with a single, specific, one-sentence query and built an entire script around it. The problem with this approach is that when the question is the movie's hook, the filmmaker must then avoid answering it for 90 or 120 or however many minutes, or the movie will lose the engine driving it forward.

Camp X-Ray occasionally seems like it might fall into that trap. The film concerns an American soldier, Cole (Kristen Stewart), out on her first assignment as a guard at Guantanamo Bay. She has a certain defiance to her, anxious to prove herself in a macho, male-dominated environment, and on her first day, she volunteers to help restrain a detainee and takes an elbow to the jaw. Later, she finds herself on the day shift in an isolated wing of the prison, where her beat involves walking in a circle up and down a hallway that's hardly 30 feet long, peering into each of the ten tiny cells to make sure the men are behaving. One of the captives is Ali (Payman Maadi), a sullen-eyed, bearded man who nonetheless has a certain optimism in his voice when he asks Cole, whom he dubs "Blondie", about whether or not he can check out the final Harry Potter book from the compound library.

The easy thing for Camp X-Ray to do would be to set up an ideological debate between Cole and Ali, one in which Cole expresses the thoughts of the average American after September 11th, and Ali expresses his innocence and the cruelty of the US military's methods in trying to capture Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda associates. It'd also be a boring movie, one in which the filmmaker would likely refuse to take a side for fear of the movie becoming a political statement. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film certainly feel as if they're going in that direction, illustrating the rah-rah demeanor and locker room-style camaraderie of the troops and the dehumanizing conditions the detainees (not prisoners -- they'd be subject to the rules of the Geneva convention) are subjected to with an indelicate touch. Like Stewart's character, the film seems to come out of the gate broadcasting its desire to Make a Statement, an approach likely to turn off most viewers regardless of the message.

Thankfully, writer/director Peter Sattler quickly shifts the focus from the broader view of the setting and scenario over to the specific characters of Cole and Ali. Moving from one to the other without making the viewer roll their eyes is a bit tricky, especially when a character warns in his opening speech not to let the detainees play mind games, but Sattler takes his time allowing Cole to warm up to the idea of talking to Ali, especially after the two get into an argument on her first shift. Guilt brings down Cole's guard when she learns about the mild but aggravating punishment Ali receives for the fight and observes the condition of his cell, and while she sticks to the rules when it comes to telling Ali about her own life, she allows Ali to tell her about his, responding more openly to his attempts to engage her in conversation.

Both Maadi and Stewart are excellent in the film. Maadi balances his bitterness and exhaustion with what is presumably Ali's natural disposition toward kindness and inquisition. He has been trapped in the prison for years, with no release in sight, but the hope of interacting with someone on the other side of his door in a normal, human way is one of the few ways he can break up the monotony of his day. When Ali falters, allowing his anger to boil up to the surface or revealing his contempt for the Army, Maadi is genuinely frightening. Sattler never confirms Ali's innocence using an objective source; when Ali tells "Blondie" that she knows nothing about him, the words hang in the air. Stewart, meanwhile, is riveting throughout as her overconfident veneer is slowly whittled down by the repetitiveness of the job, and the attitudes of her fellow soldiers. There is a subplot involving a higher-ranking officer (Lane Garrison) involving a failed hook-up and subsequent retaliation that feels a little shallow (it doesn't seem to change Cole's opinion of the military and it could've been conveyed through plain old jingoism), but the divide between Cole and the rest of the troops does highlight how comparatively open she is with Ali.

As the film builds toward a conclusion, the film spends more and more time on Cole and Ali's conversations. Although Cole is supposed to be circling the detainee block, she spends ten minutes at a time in front of Ali's cell, ignoring the rest of the detainees. At one point, Sattler changes his angles so that the door separating them isn't visible: two people in profile, looking directly at each other, occupying separate worlds. Like many of those single-question movies, Camp X-Ray doesn't really have an answer when it comes to Cole and Ali, but unlike those films, it doesn't matter. The film isn't about whether Ali should've been there or whether Cole ought to do something about it, but the connection between two people in an unlikely and extreme environment.

The Blu-ray
Although a shot of the two looking at each other through the prison door might've been more effective, IFC has gone with Twilight star Stewart as their selling point, with the front cover of their Blu-ray consisting of nothing more than her face, darkened by an Army cap, fatigues visible. The single-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
IFC's 2.39:1 1080p AVC video presentation and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack both get the job done without much fanfare. The image is crisp and clean, with excellent fine detail. The colors are not exactly desaturated, but the palette of the barracks and their outfits are fairly monotonous themselves, with gray walls and gray floors broken up only slightly by the brownish-orange doors of the cells. The occasional dark or nighttime scene also takes on a deep amber hue. No significant banding or artifacting intrudes. Sound-wise, this is yet another film that is almost entirely dialogue-based, with little to bring the surrounds to life than the occasional bit of atmospheric ambiance. Sattler actually keeps environmental accents out of the dialogue, with Cole and Ali's conversations rendered with a certain richness that adds to the drama. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
Sadly, only one supplement is included: "The Making of Camp X-Ray" (12:29, HD) is a fairly basic making-of featurette, although in this case the cast and crew do get into some mildly interesting details about the script and what drew them to it. It's a shame that Sattler, Stewart, and Maadi couldn't have gotten together for a commentary track, but this will have to suffice.

Trailers for Kelly and Cal, God's Pocket, On the Road, and Comet play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Camp X-Ray is also included.

Camp X-Ray takes a story that could be nothing but symbolism or subtext and brings it back into the arena of characters and story, where the film can flourish. Bolstered by two top-notch performances that draw the viewer in, the movie is highly recommended.

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