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by Eric Kohn
January 17, 2014 8:12 PM
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Sundance Review: Kristen Stewart Is Admirably Serious But Can't Salvage Mopey Gitmo Drama 'Camp X-Ray'

"Camp X-Ray."

Before her gig in the "Twilight" franchise turned Kristen Stewart into a global celebrity, she had already established herself as a noteworthy screen presence in much smaller projects, with her serious, distant gaze making her ideally positioned to play lost and frustrated young women. There's a glimmer of that subdued talent in "Camp X-Ray," the debut feature of writer-director Peter Sattler that finds Stewart in the excessively unglamorous role of a Guantanamo Bay guard. Unfortunately, Sattler's frustratingly on-the-nose screenplay — which finds Stewart's character forming an unlikely bond with an uncooperative detainee (Peyman Moadi) — only succeeds at emphasizing her talent in an otherwise half-baked drama.

At first, however, "Camp X-Ray" maintains a grave quality on par with the actress' abilities, opening with the detainment of the aforementioned Muslim, Ali, who's swiftly carted off to the prison camp in the wake of 9/11. A frantic montage following the orange-clad victims from land to sea and finally to their harsh new home immediately establishes the aura of despair that haunts the setting throughout. From there, Sattler introduces Amy (Stewart), a soft spoken new arrival adjusting to the fratty clique of soldiers that run the camp. Cinematographer James Laxton, whose credits include the similarly atmospheric "Medicine for Melancholy" and "The Myth of the American Sleepover," captures the drab hallways and empty outdoor landscape with a delicacy that imbues the location with a nightmarish feel.

The whole thing is successfully eerie until the real plot takes hold: Tasked with delivering books to inmates in their barren cells, Amy is assailed by Ali, who playfully messes with her head — asking her countless questions about the books she has available, hounding her about the absence of the seventh "Harry Potter" tome from the Gitmo collection, and forcing her to read aloud his other options.  The bizarre exchange establishes an inexact tone that never fully takes shape, with the new acquaintances' relationship staggering uneasily between comedy and drama.

The sheer lack of refinement to this scenario is especially clear when "Camp X-Ray" veers off into more compelling territory with a digression involving the gender issues at the camp, as Amy faces oppression from her misogynist overseer (Lane Garrison) and resists commands to humiliate Ali in a scenario mildly reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib scandal. In contrast to the underwritten exchanges she has with Ali during her guard duty, these moments convey the sense of entrapment that Amy experiences, which allow her to relate to the conundrum faced by her new friend.

Ultimately, though, "Camp X-Ray" fixates on the pair's strange relationship, as it unfolds through half-hearted exchanges and arguments about culpability. Ostensibly innocent of whatever crime has been leveled against him, Ali seems to view Amy as both a target for venting and catharsis. While that idea holds plenty of appeal, Sattler wastes time drawing out the dour nature of Gitmo's day to day routines, minus the interrogation sessions. An episode involving prisoners hurling "shit cocktails" at the guards is unsettling for all the wrong reasons: It adds a grotesque quality to a movie that's core engine should be its muted environment and hushed exchanges. Maadi, so great in Asgar Farhadi's "A Separation," here plays a one-note persona at once eloquent and curiosity naive. There's an accidental irony to this thinly devised role as the movie avoids fleshing out the very character Amy struggles to understand.

Yet that same struggle is valiantly depicted in scenes that find Amy arguing with the camp's terse colonel (John Carroll Lynch) about inmates' treatment; later, a particularly insightful cafeteria scene finds her voicing a preference for seeing combat over her current situation. The failure of "Camp X-Ray" to force those ideas into its central relationship has a particularly dispiriting feel; in between the meandering exchanges lies an unquestionably thoughtful interrogation of a broken system. As one equally downbeat soldier asserts, "we get to babysit a bunch of sheep herders," rather than instigating any real change. Sattler continually returns to one haunting image that transcends its underwritten script: The guards, including Amy, rotating ad infinitum around the claustrophobic hallway to keep constant watch on each cell, stuck in a cycle that makes them nearly as restricted as the jailed men. It's a powerful assertion about the prospects of being trapped by misguided intentions, which sadly applies to "Camp X-Ray" itself.

Criticwire Grade: C+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Though word of mouth following its Sundance premiere has been mixed, the movie did receive a standing ovation, suggesting potential for strong word of mouth and limited commercial prospects. However, the dour subject matter means this one is most likely to find most of its business on VOD.


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15 Comments

  • Omega Braodcast | January 20, 2014 1:02 PMReply

    Mopey? I thought that said "moped". I thought the film has mopeds in it.

  • Montgomery Granger | January 18, 2014 1:01 PMReply

    It's a shame the focus is on the actors and not the fictional content. Obviously based on one-sided liberal views of Gitmo, the film portrays a dishonorable character in KStew's "Amy," who commits the military crime of "fraternization." I know it's a "movie," and not based on a real story, but commercial perceptions are reality to those who don't know better. This film, along with the sexual abuse and depictions of torture simply perpetuate myths and misconceptions about Gitmo and do nothing to produce clarity and understanding about what is the absolute finest military detention facility in the world, run by 99.99% honorable, professional soldiers.

  • Morelle | January 18, 2014 6:49 PM

    If anything, the film will be slanted on the pro-Gitmo side. If the left was so concerned about Guantanamo, it would have been closed already. Get a clue. I suppose that scary bearded terrorist in the background of the pic is meant to make us sympathize with them? CLOSE GITMO!

  • M. | January 18, 2014 8:15 AMReply

    Christ...how many PR people does Stewart have on the payroll???...you'd think all the money for PR was already spent on smear campaigns against other actresses, something Stewart and her team have become very adept at.

  • Sundance Viewer | January 18, 2014 1:44 AMReply

    Was at the debut. I was skeptical going in (only went b/c I wasn't able to secure a ticket to another film) but this film got a standing ovation for a reason. It completely blew my expectations out of the water.... 4.5/5.

  • Cory | January 18, 2014 1:00 AMReply

    It's a shame that a picture wasn't used that showed both stars, given that there's probably more interest in Paymen Moadi from A Separation than for Stewart. One might even be tempted to use the R word.

  • D. | January 17, 2014 11:42 PMReply

    LOL!...ladies and gentlemen, the entire Kristen Stewart PR team: Mason, Grace, Jake and of course, JaimeT D. I trust Mr. Kohn and sorry, but K-Stew's film is getting mixed reviews.

  • Alex Smith | January 17, 2014 11:54 PM

    The film itself has had mixed reviews, yes, but I don't think I've heard a single negative comment about the performances. Maadi is one to watch and Stewart has already proven herself capable of handling weighty material, though their performances alone are obviously not enough to carry an entire film if it has issues in other areas.

  • Mason | January 17, 2014 10:09 PMReply

    This review is out of sorts from everything that is being said about Stewart andd Moaadi's performances. A standing-ovation doesn't happen because they were as bad as Indiewire is professing. The Hollywood Reporter's review is on point with everything I have been reading so far outside of the audience's tweets which were all raving. Those tweets included a lot of reporters and people in entertainment. Also, people cried towards the end. They said the ending was very emotional.

    I'm surprised by this dower review. If anything, the reports have been that the movie could be too long. But Stewart's performance has been receiving high marks. I cannot wait to see this film. Maybe you should try watching it again.

  • troy | January 21, 2014 3:45 PM

    This review is right on the mark. the films does a mediocre portrait of a great topic! the actors are not up to their parts.

  • Tom | January 18, 2014 7:04 AM

    Have you read the same tweets? The movie and the performances aren't getting bad reviews but they're also not good. They're just okay. Nobody has received high marks.

  • Grace | January 17, 2014 10:35 PM

    Completely agree-this review now seems do incongruous with everything else I've been reading. Everyone has praised the performances given by Stewart & Maadi, with most of the criticism directed at the pacing of the film.

    Of course it's dour subject matter, but wouldn't have this reviewer known that going in? No film about Gitmo is going to be upbeat. (Unless your film's title begins with the names Harold and Kumar.)

    I, for one, am still very much looking forward to seeing it.

  • Jake | January 17, 2014 8:37 PMReply

    I have read a lot of great reviews, especially for the performances by Maadi and Stewart. I look forward to seeing it for myself.

  • Grace | January 17, 2014 8:23 PMReply

    Still looking forward to this for Stewart's performance. It'll be exciting to watch this stage of her career unfold as she takes on roles that showcase her raw talent and allow her to really shine through interesting material. Glad to see her finally getting acknowledged for her early work as well, which was mostly excellent but was under the radar and then overshadowed by the franchise.

  • Jamie T D | January 17, 2014 8:54 PM

    I am also eager to see this film. I thought Kristen Stewart's acting in the Twilight series was solid not outstanding but she did an adequate job. I think this will be an interesting take on the whole War on Terror age which we are living in now. I hope it will get picked up soon.