Sundance Film Review: ‘Camp X-Ray’

Camp X Ray Sundance

Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi channel Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in this competent but politically suspect drama.

Channeling Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Kristen Stewart delivers a solid performance as a rookie Guantanamo Bay guard in “Camp X-Ray,” a competently directed, politically questionable film whose most appreciative viewers will leave feeling better about Gitmo. Personalizing the war on terror through its story of the tricky friendship that develops between Stewart’s tough-and-tender private and a Middle Eastern inmate (Payman Maadi) whom she’s instructed never to call a prisoner (those are protected by the Geneva Convention), first-time writer-director Peter Sattler’s pic means very well, but strains credibility and ethics alike. Commercial prospects appear limited.

Much of the dialogue-driven film has Maadi’s Ali, more cat than mouse, and Stewart’s Cole, frightened but drawn in, conversing through the tiny window in his cell, a conceit that puts the pic firmly in the company of “Lambs,” not least when the private refers to her charge as “Lecter.“

Like Clarice Starling, Pvt. Cole is a young woman from a small town who’s challenged to keep her cool as the incarcerated man taunts, intrigues and occasionally humiliates her — most violently here in a scene that informs the viewer of what U.S. military guards apparently call a fecal “cocktail.” (Stewart’s slight resemblance to Foster — first noticed by David Fincher, who cast the two as mother and daughter in “Panic Room” — only adds to the similarity between Starling and Cole.)

Set mostly in the late aughts, the movie begins in 2001 with TV news images of the Twin Towers spewing smoke, followed by the brisk apprehension of three Middle Eastern men, one of whom is Ali. The first reel of “Camp X-Ray” amounts to Sattler’s most gripping filmmaking by far, as it also includes the startling sight of Stewart looking stern and beaten down as Cole, who arrives to work on a Gitmo cell block eight years after 9/11. Alas, the early promise of an aptly intense look at U.S. detention center realities gradually gives way to something a good deal gentler — and a lot less plausible.

An avid reader of both the Quran and the Harry Potter books (all but the last one, anyway), Ali brilliantly manages to get Cole talking, taking her aback with his commentary on the library materials she distributes to inmates. That the Gitmo guards have withheld the final Potter volume from circulation gives Cole a rather predictable choice to make, while allowing Sattler to portray a rather more tolerable cruelty than any informed American citizen is likely to have heard about before.

“Camp X-Ray” is most commendable for believably depicting the U.S. military from a female’s point of view, particularly as Cole gets mistreated by a macho male corporal (Lane Garrison) and dares to fight the invisible war by filing a report with the commanding officer (John Carroll Lynch). So, too, the film treats its characters, guards and inmates alike, with clear compassion, although, as a terror-war movie, its preoccupation with the heartwarming exception to the rule too often turns bold American drama into standard operating procedure.

The two leads are excellent and play off each other deftly. Acting almost exclusively with his bearded face as seen through the cell window, Maadi (“A Separation”) calibrates precisely the character’s mix of humor, anger, despair and endurance. In a turn that will surprise and impress those who know her only from the “Twilight” films, Stewart is riveting, especially in the final scenes, where Sattler reverses the camera’s perspective so that Cole is the one viewed through the window, appearing as a sort of prisoner herself.

Editing of the nearly two-hour film could be much tighter, particularly in the midsection. James Laxton’s widescreen cinematography effectively communicates tension in both open and confined spaces. Other tech credits are sharp, with the exception of a bumpy sound mix.

Sundance Film Review: 'Camp X-Ray'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 2014. Running time: 117 MIN.

Production

A GNK production, in association with the Gotham Group, Rough House Pictures, the Young Gang. (International sales: UTA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Gina Kwon. Executive producers, Emmy Ellison, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, David Gordon Green, Sophia Lin, Lindsay Williams.

Crew

Directed, written by Peter Sattler. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), James Laxton; editor, Geraud Brisson; music, Jess Stroup; music supervisor, Margaret Yen; production designer, Richard A. Wright; art director, Josh Locy; costume designer, Christie Wittenborn; set decorator, Adam Willis; sound, Amanda Beggs; supervising sound editor, Michael Perricone; re-recording mixers, Perricone, Will Files; visual effects, Jim Pierce; stunt coordinator, TJ White; line producer, Angela Sostre; associate producer, Cassandra Laymon; assistant director, Matt McKinnon; casting, Richard Hicks.

With

Kristen Stewart, Payman Maadi, John Carroll Lynch, Lane Garrison, Joseph Julian Soria, Ser’Darius Blain, Cory Michael Smith, Julia Duffy.

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  1. Mr Nelson,

    DO you think it is fair Rotten Tomatoes consider this review as Rotten?

    For what I read, your review is more regular to positive not negative. You state that there are flaws but it should not dismissed and you praised the acting ensemble.

    The thing with Rotten Tomatoes is… its stats brands a movie like not worst a try to watch for the most audience who believe in common critical☓sense.

    Rotten Tomatoes numbers from festival’s reviews can screw the chances of little character driven movies, like this one, to reach audience, for influence negatively the potential of the movie for possible buyers.

    Festivals acts as almost test screens where first time directors can take the constructive critics and make some new editing cut of the movie, improving it.

    Please, I ask you to reconsider your Rotten grade in Rotten Tomatoes because I really do not see any Rotten thing approach in your review. As you appointed it has flaws but put it as Rotten is totally dismiss it.

    Thank you for your hard work in Sundance, bringing insightful reviews what we should try to watch in the future.

  2. mjgranger says:

    The problem I have is that KStew portrays a dishonorable soldier. Fraternization is a crime in the military. At the first instance of abuse and feelings of fraternization, “Amy” should have recused herself from duty requiring contact with the detainee. This is a Hollywood fantasy that is harmful to the military and to female Military Police guards. Also, the fact that KStew’s character is sexually assaulted adds insult to injury towards a battered and bruised reputation for the Army, a decidedly professional organization that requires extremely disciplined behavior especially at Gitmo.

  3. gabrieltolliver says:

    May I suggest the author make a correction to this article in referring to Kristen Stewart as an officer when she is mentioned as a Private. If she is a Private, then she is a enlisted soldier, not an officer.

  4. johntshea says:

    Eight years after 9/11 is 2009, the first year of President Obama’s first term. So I take it Mr. Nelson doesn’t like the way President Obama is running Guantanamo Bay and believes this new movie is not sufficiently critical of it?

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