It's easy to forget after years of watching her waste away in the Twilight franchise, but Kristen Stewart has always been a sure talent who walked to the beat of her own drum. More often than her detractors care to admit, Stewart has shown a maturity well beyond her years, and a ferocity that has made her perfect for playing strong, independent women with a bit of a an edge. That innate toughness makes her the perfect choice to play a defiant Guantanamo Bay prison guard in Peter Sattler's Camp X-Ray, a simplistic look at the military's inhumane treatment of detainees.
The film begins ominously enough with video of 9/11 and the smoldering World Trade Center, establishing that the old ways of American security will never be the same again. A Muslim man carrying a bag full of cell phones stops to pray in his run-down apartment and is greeted with a bag over his head, whisked away through quick montages to the infamous prison. Fast-forward eight years and we're thrust into Gitmo and introduced to Amy (Stewart), a newbie guard with a quiet demeanor and furious temper that draws unwanted attention from detainees and colleagues alike. On her first day she gets into a scrap with an inmate and, catching an elbow to the face, smiles at the physical altercation. Is this going to be a lean, mean, unsparing look at the people who have made Guantanamo such a black mark on American foreign policy?
Unfortunately no, as the darker tone begins to take on a different shape when Amy is assigned to hand out books to the detainees. It's then that she meets Ali (Peyman Moadi), a chatty, probing detainee who begins to pester her over the books she has to offer. He's read six of the Harry Potter books and has been waiting impatiently for the seventh so he can find out of Snape is truly good or evil. The conversation is odd, playful but also with an undertone of danger. Like Snape, we don't know if Ali has the best of intentions or if he's plotting something sinister. Amy tries to keep him at arm's length, trying to heed the advice of her brash superior: "Don't let them get inside your head".
Capturing the boring repetition and minutiae of military life, so accurately depicted in Jarhead some years ago, Sattler shows that Gitmo is a prison that has ensnared far more than the detainees. At first Amy tries to fit in, swallowing her objections against the casual mistreatment of Ali and others. Despite being targeted for a disgusting "shit cocktail" hurled by Ali himself, Amy lets her guard down around him and finds they have far more in common than not. Conversely, she's punished and ostracized from the other soldiers after rejecting her superior's romantic advances, and faces further discipline after reporting him for a rules violation.
Exploring the tenuous position of females in the male-dominated military hierarchy could have taken the film to promising new areas, but Sattler instead focuses on the unlikely friendship between Amy and Ali. Yet still the lengthy conversations they have about all manner of subjects amount to absolutely nothing, and never come close to examining Ali's potential guilt. While there's an inherent loneliness that drives them together initially, Ali is never defined well enough to convincingly explain her deepening interest. This becomes especially problematic during an undercooked final exchange where their rival philosophies on justice are laid on the table. "What have you learned?" Ali repeatedly asks her, in an attempt to discover what it is that has drawn her to him. No answer is forthcoming, and Sattler seems unsure what truly binds these characters other than proximity and pity.
At the same time, Sattler has constructed a competently made film about people and empathy rather than Gitmo's real-life scandals. While terribly under-developed, flashes of poignancy occasionally illuminate Ali and Amy's growing friendship, aided by strong performances by the two leads. Dressed down in a way we've never seen her before, Stewart's riveting, tough and vulnerable performance may be the finest of her career. Moadi, who some may recall from Oscar-winning foreign film A Separation, is a whirlwind of rage, humor, and despair as the possibly-innocent Ali, who is faced with an uncertain future.
While flawed in execution, Camp X-Ray tells us traditional notions of good and evil no longer apply in a misguided place like Gitmo, and all who find themselves there are trapped behind walls of concrete and steel.