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.
A version of this review ran during the Sundance Film Festival. “Camp X-Ray” opens theatrically and on VOD this Friday.