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IFC Films // R // October 17, 2014
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past several years, then you at least know about Kristen Stewart. She was the center of every pop culture joke for quite some time for her performances as Bella Swan in the Twilight franchise. Many of these criticisms are a bit harsh, as she has proven that she's a capable actress when given proper material. Stewart managed to deliver memorable performances in both Adventureland and The Runaways. Now, she's starring in a new independent film that is sure to be controversial and will likely open to mixed opinions. While flawed, Camp X-Ray is ultimately successful in achieving what it set out to do.
Cole (Kristen Stewart) is a soldier, who has been reassigned to a new task. She is being transferred to be a guard in Guantanamo Bay with the job of keeping order within the units. However, this poses its own stresses, as she receives harsh treatment for her gender. Cole befriends detainee Ali (Peyman Moaadi), who has been imprisoned there for eight years. This forbidden friendship causes unforeseen problems with fellow soldiers, leaving Cole to do what she believes is right.
Camp X-Ray quickly captures our attention, as it displays how both Cole and Ali happened to come upon the same location. The question of whether Ali is truly involved in terrorist activities is left open to interpretation. While there are hints at the beginning of the picture that lead us to believe that he was, writer/director Peter Sattler's screenplay doesn't go beyond that. Even if he was somehow involved, we're never made aware just how close he was to any of the extremists, or their plans. Meanwhile, Cole is rather introverted around other soldiers, but she seems interested in the task that has been assigned to her. With no other volunteers, she decides to immerse herself in what will be her new environment until further notice. There's a lot to these two characters, but we're never entirely let in. We're given small bits of information regarding their pasts throughout, although Sattler keeps the characterizations relatively isolated, utilizing these small details as contextual information for their behaviors. It's really fascinating, as we continue to try and infer as much as we can about these characters, as it feels almost as forbidden as the bond that forms between a detainee and a guard.
The discussions held between Cole and Ali are quite intriguing, as conversations range from pop culture to deeper matters involving several themes that are quite relevant to modern times. Sattler's dialogue is quite good, as the interactions generally feel genuine. It somehow manages to make Ali a sympathetic character, as he continues to display a deep desire for human interaction, as he desperately believes that he's innocent. However, the compliments end when it comes to Cole's relationships with her fellow guards. Given that this is where she must be for a while, she makes some friends, although the discussions feel entirely too contrived. Writer/director Peter Sattler attempts to incorporate a sub-plot involving a superior officer's inappropriate conduct, although it feels pointless. It doesn't contribute anything to the film. Even though it's heavily stressed through certain portions of the picture, this material is never even touched upon by the end. What could have potentially been great dramatic element has turned into a "time filler."
The controversial message at the heart of Camp X-Ray is how Ali expresses his journey within Guantanamo Bay. Not only is he physically trapped, but he feels as if he's in a mental state that will never allow him the freedom to live his life. Sattler's screenplay touches upon various other political points that could turn some viewers off, although he doesn't entirely push the envelope. While he mentions many of these beats, he shies away from truly following through on the message that he's trying to deliver. This leads to a conclusion that strives for emotions that haven't entirely been earned. While it becomes incredibly simple to sympathize with the characters, the material doesn't permeate the soul in the way that the filmmaker intended. Even so, this is a memorable piece of cinema that took risks, even if it didn't entirely follow through on them.
Kristen Stewart manages to deliver a remarkably convincing performance as Cole. She is usually criticized for not displaying a believable range of emotion, but that isn't the case here. Stewart hits all of the right notes, as she transforms what could have been an extremely limited character into a person that we become truly invested in. Peyman Moaadi is brilliant as Ali. After showing his tremendous ability in A Separation, he once again displays a stunning amount of range. This performance is part of what makes it easier for audiences to connect with Ali, even though we are still aware of what he might have done in the past. This is a pair of tremendous representations that make for dramatically tense storytelling.
This is a film that relies almost entirely on its performances, and they are successful in delivering these roles. Kristen Stewart is captivating, and Peyman Moaadi is phenomenal, making for a special moviegoing experience. While controversial, Peter Sattler's screenplay is utterly enthralling from the moment it starts until the credits start rolling. You won't be able to get your eyes off the screen. Cole's experience with fellow guards in Guantanamo Bay is a bit flat, but the interactions held between Cole and Ali are the film's saving grace. However, Sattler fails to push the envelope when needed. Camp X-Ray is a solid feature debut with mesmerizing performances from Stewart and Moaadi. Recommended.