Camp X-Ray: Sundance Review

A somber but cogent drama that uses its setting as a provocative backdrop rather than a debate point.

Kristen Stewart stars opposite Peyman Moaadi from Iranian Oscar winner "A Separation" in Peter Sattler's Sundance entry set in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Writer-director Peter Sattler’s riveting first feature, Camp X-Ray, leaves aside the controversy surrounding Guantanamo Bay to focus instead on a personal drama of human connection and compassion, deftly drawn out of the mundane day-to-day of cellblock life. In essence a two-hander, it balances a powerfully internalized performance from Kristen Stewart, delivering perhaps her best screen work to date as an inexperienced military guard, against an equally compelling characterization from Peyman Moaadi as the long-term detainee who pierces her shell. Its psychological complexity and rich emotional rewards should ensure this expertly crafted if overlong film a significant audience.

Sattler signals his storytelling confidence from the outset with the taut pretitle sequence. An Arab-language television newscast shows the familiar image of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, while a Muslim man prepares to leave his dingy apartment. As he pauses to pray, law enforcement agents burst into the room, slipping a sack over his head and removing him on a journey that -- in quick cuts of starkly framed images -- transports him and others by air, sea and road to a steel-fenced prison facility where they are placed in individual cages. When the sack is removed, we see the beaten, bloodied face of the man we will come to know as Ali (Moaadi), or detainee 471.

Jumping ahead eight years to 2009, recent recruit Amy Cole (Stewart) arrives, and with other new guards, is given the standard orientation drill. That includes 12-hour patrol rotation and suicide watch every three minutes through glass windows in each single-occupancy cell door. “They will test you, they will best you,” says Ransdell, the division’s cocky tough-guy corporal who will be Amy’s direct superior. He advises the newbies to share no names or information: “Don’t let them get inside your head.”

Anxious to prove her mettle in the mostly male company, Amy volunteers on day one to be part of a four-member Initial Reaction Force team called to subdue a violent jihadist detainee. Her “Welcome to Gitmo” involves being punched in the face and spat on. In these lean establishing scenes, Sattler and editor Geraud Brisson lay a foundation of atmospheric tension, aided by the measured movement and steady gaze of James Laxton’s widescreen digital camerawork and by Jess Stroup’s moody melodic score.

The tone begins to shift, however, during a terrific scene invigorated by unexpected humor in which Amy wheels the book cart along the cellblock corridor and has her first interaction with Ali. Returning a fat volume of Emily Dickinson poems, he sniffs at the other reading material on offer before launching into a rant about the guards withholding the seventh Harry Potter book to drive him crazy. In this and subsequent exchanges he needles "Blondie," as he calls her -- sometimes just toying with her, sometimes getting aggressive or downright nasty -- while she endeavors to remain impassive.

Attempting to adapt to the military mindset, Amy participates in beer blasts and fishing trips. She tries to swallow her moral misgivings when she feels Ali is being excessively punished for a transgression in which she was affected. But when Ransdell hits on her and she has second thoughts about consenting, her acceptance in the company is threatened. Observing her talking with Ali in the exercise yard, the corporal uses his power to humiliate both guard and detainee.

Amy’s decision to report Ransdell for conduct violation backfires in another intensely played scene. She is interviewed by the commanding officer (John Carroll Lynch), who makes his feelings clear concerning his views on reporting against a fellow officer and also his own resentment at being assigned to Gitmo.

At a fraction under two hours, the film could benefit from minor tightening, particularly during some midsection slackening. But the continuing evolution of Amy’s cautious friendship with Ali is observed with emotional integrity and poignancy, depicting two intelligent people in contrasting states of confinement, each of them seeking contact. The dramatic stakes are elevated in a highly suspenseful climactic scene during which both Amy and Ali reveal more about themselves in a few minutes than they have throughout the entire movie.

“You and me are at war,” Ali says to her at one point. But while the detainee’s innocence as a terrorism suspect is clearly inferred, one of the strengths of Sattler’s screenplay is his refusal to make this a straightforward drama about enemies, injustice or dehumanizing persecution. He makes it about empathy, and in doing so broadens the intimate story to find thematic universality.

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Sattler’s grasp of character is strong, as is his guidance of the actors, suggesting distinct personalities among Amy’s macho fellow guards, generally with just a line or two. But the pulse of this enhanced chamber piece, much of which obviously takes place in claustrophobic interiors, is the unlikely bond between Amy and Ali.

Best known for his fine work as the embattled husband in Iranian foreign-language Oscar winner A Separation, Moaadi makes Ali a proud, angry man, as dismissive of his fellow inmates’ hostility as he is of the U.S. military. His bitterness when he strips Amy of her delusions about herself and what she has learned is formidable. But so too is his shattering fragility when he ponders his future.

Ever since the Twilight backlash began, people have questioned whether Stewart is merely a sullen screen queen or a real actor. She puts that argument to rest here, playing a tough, taciturn character driven by an inarticulate urge “to do something important,” but steadily awakened by unpredictable reality. It’s a fiercely contained performance, conveying raw personal insights even when Amy outwardly remains clenched in discomfort. There’s not a moment Stewart’s onscreen here where she isn’t completely transfixing.

Production: GNK Production, in association with The Gotham Group, Rough House Pictures, The Young Gang
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, John Carroll Lynch, Lane Garrison, Cory Michael Smith, Joseph Julian Soria, Ser'Darius Blain, Julia Duffy
Director-screenwriter: Peter Sattler
Producers: Gina Kwon, Lindsay Williams
Executive producers: Emmy Ellison, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, David Gordon Green, Sophia Lin
Director of photography: James Laxton
Production designer: Richard A. Wright
Costume designer: Christie Wittenborn
Editor: Geraud Brisson
Music: Jess Stroup
Sales: UTA

No rating, 117 minutes