Kristen Stewart has long been maligned for her seemingly unshakeable performance tics – the hair-playing, the lip-biting, the huffy breathing – and despite being gifted with a compelling character in Peter Sattler’s ambitious Camp X-Ray, Stewart simply can’t kick her bad habits in service to a good performance. Sattler’s debut feature is set at Guantanamo Bay, requiring Stewart to play a young U.S. soldier who finds her worldview forever altered by her experiences, and the actress simply isn’t up to the task, bringing down the quality and power of the entire film in the process.
The film opens with a shot of the Twin Towers smoking on 9/11, as seen on television in a foreign country that we only, much later, learn is Germany. Aware of the events and confoundingly kitted out with a bag of cell phones, Ali Amir (Payman Maadi) turns his attention away from the news for afternoon prayer. He doesn’t finish those prayers, because a black bag is soon thrown over his head and he’s carted off to Gitmo. Beaten, caged, and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, the film then flashes forward to eight years later, and the arrival of Stewart’s Private Amy Cole.
It is impossible to believe that Stewart’s character, at least as portrayed by the actress, has gone through any kind of military training. Private Cole looks put out when she has to open a door, so the idea that she’s signed up for this stuff, gone through back-breaking basic training, and willingly gone off to Guantanamo is utterly laughable. Cole doesn’t look like she can hack it – and neither can Stewart. Stewart’s face consistently remains stuck in her traditional facial expressions – annoyed and bored – and by the time she starts displaying something resembling actual human emotion, it’s far too late to stick. Stewart’s low energy and engagement with the material rob the feature of plenty of power, much of which is made up by the film’s other star.
As detainee Ali, Payman Maadi turns in another remarkable performance, one that should come as little surprise to audience members who witnessed his work in A Separation. Where Stewart falters, Maadi picks up the slack, infusing his performance with nuance and passion and appropriate rage. Despite Stewart’s lackluster work here, she and Maadi do eventually come to have a kind of chemistry and an emotional bond that is effective, but it doesn’t really hit until the film’s final frames.
Sattler does make some other missteps in his film beyond just poor casting, as he frequently juxtaposes Cole with Ali, making direct correlations between Ali’s imprisonment and Cole’s enlistment. Cole folds clothes. Ali folds clothes. Cole is told what to do. Ali is told what to do. Cole rests on her bed. Ali rests on his bed. It’s a basic brand of observation, and it frankly feels pretty damn cheap. Eventually, the film seems far more concerned with the indignities Cole suffers (and, to be sure, there are more than a few lobbed at her), but within the context of Guantanamo Bay at large and Ali’s desperate position in particular, they simply don’t have the same impact and the overall feeling is that Sattler’s aim is misguided.
Camp X-Ray does, however, stand out in a few notable areas – especially when it comes to nailing the routine and repetition that drive both life in prison and life in the army (look! a connection that can actually work!). Sattler doesn’t shy away from repeating sequences and actions, and his use of extremely long scenes also helps both lull and inoculate his audience. At the very least, it’s a consuming film. Technically speaking, Camp X-Ray is extremely accomplished, and Sattler clearly has an ear and eye for dramatic stories and characters, it’s just a shame he didn’t pick another leading lady to report for duty.
The Upside: Payman Maadi’s performance is stellar, the film is technically impressive on all levels (from score to cinematography to set design), and Sattler’s approach to the subject matter is unique and interesting. Also, Harry Potter references.
The Downside: Kristen Stewart’s performance is dead in the water, the basic and uninspired juxtaposition between the two leads fails to work as some dramatic commentary and feels amateur, and the eventually uncomfortable focus on the emotional trials of Cole (over Ali) comes across as tone-deaf.
On the Side: The film may be Sattler’s directorial debut, but his resume is filled with plenty of graphic design gigs on features like Star Trek, Take Me Home Tonight, and Walk the Line.
Our review of Camp X-Ray originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited release.