Good acting is often the result of finding a suitable role. Upon initial inspection, Kristen Stewart playing a newbie detention guard at Guantanamo Bay in CAMP X-RAY doesn't sound like a match made in casting boot camp. But before her one-note natterings in the Twilight movies, Stewart assembled a catalogue of capable film credits, including Undertow, Panic Room, Zathura, Into the Wild and The Cake Eaters.
Stewart's detached, even austere aura and restrained delivery actually suit the role of Amy Cole, an Army private embarking on her initial assignment to GTMO (Camp Delta, to be precise). Cole is fighting a personal war on three fronts. She's trying to shake off the dust of her small-town Florida upbringing while coping with being a female enlistee in a misogynistic military culture.
And she's plunged into a prison where the inmates must be called "detainees" (those pesky Geneva Conventions) and the guards' primary charge isn't to prevent escape—it's an island, after all—but to use any means necessary to ensure that their captives simply don't die.
It's a monotonous mission without practical value or ethical clarity. Cole's daily duty is to circumambulate the interior of a cell block and peer inside each room to detect any skullduggery afoot. But with some savvy detainees incarcerated for nearly a decade, the film dangles the open question of whether they hold the mental upper hand over a revolving door of inexperienced sentries and their jaded superiors.
It's against this backdrop that Amy encounters Ali Amir (Peyman Moaadi from A Separation), a defiant, English-speaking Muslim rendered from his German home eight years earlier. Ali takes to calling Amy "Blondie," and their initial exchange is punctuated by Ali drenching her with a cup of his feces.
Nevertheless, an improbable kinship soon develops between them because, by golly, he likes Harry Potter, too. Forced feedings and sleep deprivation are one thing, but the library cart providing every Potter book except The Deathly Hallows? Now that's torture.
Writer-director Peter Sattler says he consulted the Guantanamo operating procedures released by WikiLeaks, and there's verisimilitude in the camp's physical design and suffocating air of hopelessness. However, the byplay between Amy and Ali feels procedurally and emotionally inorganic, a shoehorned plot device seemingly inspired by The Silence of the Lambs. "Cut the Hannibal Lecter shit," our substitute Clarice Starling says at one point.
As Amy and Ali's platonic rapport reaches its climax, Sattler shrewdly shifts the camera perspective so the audience now views Amy behind glass, driving home the notion that she's locked in her own psychological prison. However, it comes during a ludicrously overwrought final act that doesn't bear out their—or the film's—journey from bile duct to tear duct.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Friend zone"