Much of the focus for Camp X-Ray, Peter Sattler’s debut feature, will be on Kristen Stewart. Now that the book is closed on The Twilight Saga, a series of five vampire-centric teen films that became a global phenomenon, grossing over $3.3 billion, the 23-year-old actress is making the transition into more adult fare. The opening salvo was 2012’s On the Road, wherein she delivered a feral performance as the libidinous Marylou, a straggler in life and love who’s fallen under the spell of charismatic lothario Dean Moriarty.
Stewart’s latest role, and her first in the lead since those terribly popular vamp movies, is her most ambitious one yet. In Camp X-Ray, she plays Amy Cole, a newly enlisted guard at Guantanamo Bay detention center. She’s a bit of a mystery, this Amy. We don’t know where she hails from, and are only given brief biographical snapshots, from a Skype chat with her disturbingly upbeat mother, who mentions the man she’s left back home to go all America on everyone’s asses, to a brief sauced-up encounter with her immediate superior, Cpl. Randy (Lane Garrison), whose aggressive face-sucking causes her to storm out in a huff. Amy is, it seems, a lost young woman who’s been indoctrinated into this “patriotic” role (“I wanted to do something important,” she’ll later reveal). She meticulously de-glams, forcing her flowing brown hair into a tight bun. The uniform, and this newfangled authoritative role, gives her a sense of purpose.
The film opens with a shot lingering on the World Trade Center up in smoke. We’re in a nondescript Muslim country, and the 9/11 attacks are being broadcast on Arab television. A man is seen handling a bunch of cell phones on a table before going to a sun-lit room to pray. Suddenly, a hood is shoved over his head. Extraordinary rendition. He’s being shipped, in an orange jumpsuit with a black hood over his head and a headset muffing his ears, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It’s a beautifully shot sequence, the harsh orange uniforms juxtaposed with the shimmering blue water. When the hood is removed, the man’s (Payman Maadi) face appears beaten to a pulp. He’s placed inside a tiny steel cage outdoors, along with several other shocked men.
Eight years later, Private Cole arrives at Gitmo.
“Make no mistake about it, this is a war zone,” says Randy, who further instructs his new batch of guards to only refer to the imprisoned as “detainees,” since they aren’t subject to the by-laws of the Geneva Convention.
On her first day, the go-getting Cole volunteers to join an IRF, or Internal Reaction Force—a group of four guards who don riot gear in order to discipline a combative detainee. Cole is initially put off by the brute display of force employed to restrain just one man, but during the fracas, the detainee elbows her in the face. She kicks him in the stomach in retaliation as he lies restrained on the ground. Later, we see the detainee strapped to a chair and locked in a room. His strident screams can be heard on the other side of the wall.
Cole is given day-duty, which consists of delivering books to the detainees through their cell doors. Many of the inmates, who are almost entirely Muslim, won’t look her in the eye.
“These guys just don’t like girls,” says the narrow-minded Randy. “It’s some Arab thing.”
One inmate that does is Ali Amir (Maadi), otherwise referred to as “471.” He’s a self-described university graduate who reads Emily Dickinson. He tries to engage Cole in conversation, demanding the final book in the Harry Potter series.
“Imagine, two years I’m asking you to give me this book,” he says of The Deathly Hallows.
“Cut the Hannibal Lecter shit,” she replies, in an apparent tip of the cap to her Panic Room co-star. “Just keep it down.”
So, he responds by throwing a cup of shit at her. Cole is, once again, seeing red. As punishment, her superiors, led by Col. Drummond (excellent character actor John Carroll Lynch), order Ali to be placed on the “Frequent-Flyer Program,” whereby he’s shuttled from one cell to another every two hours as a form of sleep deprivation. It’s her first real taste of the inhumanity of this place. The detainees then stage a five-day hunger strike, demanding an elliptical machine for the prison yard (which is granted).
Later on, an understanding is struck between Cole and Ali—he calls her “Blondie,” and she calls him “Ali”—and the two discuss a number of issues through his cell door as he makes his daily rounds, ranging from literature to their respective backgrounds, and how they ended up at this godforsaken place. Randy catches wind of their “special relationship”—or conversing with the detainees and treating them like humans—and punishes Cole, whom he still has a vendetta against for turning down his advances, and Ali by having her monitor him while he showers.
“Are you a soldier, or a female soldier?” Randy asks her.
After the episode, Cole takes action against Randy, accusing him of an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) violation. The higher-ups side with Randy, and Cole assumes the role of pariah among the guards. She’s given a taste of what the prisoners face daily—the sense of isolation—and it rattles her.
“It’s not as black and white as they said it was going to be,” she complains to a fellow guard.
Camp X-Ray suffers from bouts of clumsy, tone-deaf writing—in particular the scenes of Ali complaining about the facility having all but the final Potter book. It comes off as slightly comical, when it should be far, far from it. The same goes for the elliptical machine hunger strike, which also comes off as tonally deficient, to say the least. Perhaps Sattler was taken by the story that hit the news a few years ago about a 48-year-old terror suspect who collapsed and died at Gitmo after using an elliptical.
In addition to the hunger strike, many of the scenes are lazily conceived, including the one where the asshole corporal gets a little too rough with Cole in a bathroom (who didn’t see that coming?), or scenes where Cole interacts with her only “friend” at the base, a guard named Rico who emits an incessant string of vacuous statements (“These detainees are crazy!”).
But, by the end of Camp X-Ray, you’re won over by Stewart’s layered turn as Cole, and Maadi’s as the defiant Ali. It’s a role perfectly suited to her strengths—vulnerability and hidden courage—and few young actresses, with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence, can hold a close-up like Stewart. If this is evidence of what’s in store for us from a post-Twilight Stewart, which will also include an upcoming project with acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, then her future is looking pretty bright.