You kind of know the type of movie you’re getting into when its opening shot depicts the terrorist attacks that happened on September 11, 2001, don’t you? This isn’t a movie that’ll make you laugh; it’s a king of brutal drama about war. However, unlike most movies, it takes place in Guantanamo Bay, and primarily follows two characters talking and learning about each other, even though they’re really not supposed to. If they fell in love, it’d be Romeo & Juliet, except one of them might be a terrorist.
I’m … making light of it a little bit, possibly because the story is a touch unbelievable and is more difficult to take seriously than it should be. The film wants to, just maybe, make us think that people are more complicated than the labels to which we initially attribute them, while also drawing attention to the treatment of detainees — not prisoners, since they get rights — at Guantanamo. And it does this … by having one if its female guards (Kristen Stewart) strike up a semi-friendship with one of the inmates (Peyman Moaadir).
I’ll backtrack. PFC Amy Cole (Stewart) has finally left her hometown and is in the army. She’s assigned to guard duty at Guantanamo Bay — or perhaps she chose it; I don’t know how these things work — and spends most of her day pacing back and forth in the same section. Sometimes he hands out food or books. One inmate, Ali (Moaadi), begins to talk to her. He wants to know if she has the last Harry Potter book. And, let me tell you this: it’s kind of inherently funny listening to Kristen Stewart talk about Harry Potter.
Ali is apparently the only detainee in this block that speaks English, so he spends lots of his time peppering Cole with questions. She’s not supposed to reveal anything personal, but before long, she has. I questioned at this point whether this was a ploy by Ali to get inside her head, get preferential treatment, or maybe even plan an escape. No, he’s just a curious fellow, even if he does sometimes act up. He is imprisoned for life, after all. That can drive anyone a little crazy.
From here, the film deals with Ali’s treatment — and the treatment of all of the detainees at Guantanamo — as well as the way that the military deals with its female members, how dehumanizing being a guard at this place can be, and essentially just how little fun life is. Even in its only real scene that shows its characters experiencing joy, Camp X-Ray has to ruin the fun by throwing negativity into the mix. It’s a bit much, actually.
This is a talkative movie. You learn about its two main characters through the dialogue they share with one another, and sometimes the rest of the characters actively try to make sure you get to hear as little as possible, since they’re really not supposed to be sharing anything. Oh, and it all might be a power ploy, even though the film hints at that at the beginning but then never pushes that angle. It was just me thinking that, really. I get why they’d bring it up, but to never mention it again loses a potentially exciting element.
What Camp X-Ray will probably be noticed for the most is that it reaffirms Kristen Stewart as a strong dramatic actor, even though people paying attention would need the reaffirmation. Look at her non-mainstream body of work and you’d already know it. This film shows her as someone who has to struggle to keep an emotionless demeanor, occasionally showing cracks in that mask. And she’s really good at it. Not to be outdone is Peyman Moaadi, who provides more heart to the picture than he probably should have had to.
Camp X-Ray is a good film, although it will be a tough watch for some people. It consists primarily of talking, and doesn’t allow for many moments of levity throughout, meaning you’re going to be wading through a lot of depressing negativity as it plays. But it has strong leading performances, and it does take a look at some serious themes, which makes it a rewarding watch for those who are willing to sit through it. Is it sometimes difficult to take seriously? Sure, but stick with it and you’ll be able to get something out of it.