CAMP X-RAY * * *
Starring Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, Lane Garrison, Julia Duffy and John Carroll Lynch. Written and directed by Peter Sattler.
Camp X-Ray takes place in limbo. Just as the sterile, stateless confines of Guantanamo Bay exist in a legal loophole phantom zone outside the Geneva Convention, so writer-director Peter Sattler’s debut feature floats for the most part in a sort of numbed, ritual purgatory. This is a patient, quiet film fixated on procedure and routine, endlessly circling to hypnotic effect until a last-minute lurch for melodrama throws the whole thing off its axis. The final reel of Camp X-Ray is actually kinda terrible, but that’s not enough to undo all the excellence that has come before. At least not for me.
Kristen Stewart stars as PFC Cole, a fresh-faced recruit from a backwater Florida town assigned to the detention center’s round-the-clock suicide watch. “The walls keep them inside,” her leering, good ole boy supervisor (Lane Garrison) explains, “our job is to keep them alive.” And so Cole and her team spend the movie walking in circles around a cramped hallway, peering through tiny cell windows at the “detainees.” They aren’t allowed to call them “prisoners,” because prisoners have rights.
Sometimes their captives fling feces at them, other times they go on hunger strikes. Nothing matters, nothing changes. There were no charges filed, no trials in these men’s futures – no futures at all really, just a round-the-clock fluorescent-lit stasis. Sattler approaches this setting with a shrewdly dispassionate eye, lingering on details like months-old redacted newspapers offered as reading material, or exercise sessions in chain-link cages – bullshit token gestures that some ass-covering D.C. politicos can claim as “humane treatment” if they ever end up at The Hague.
There are no names here (soldiers’ uniforms come with nifty removable Velcro tags) but detainee #471 takes a shine to Cole, who he calls “Blondie” despite all visual evidence to the contrary. As played by Peyman Moaadi –so unforgettable in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation— he’s the silver-tongued, slyly funny hell-raiser on the block, a self-styled McMurphy who at first seems to think he’s found his redneck Nurse Ratched, and accordingly splatters her with his shit.
“Enough with the Hannibal Lecter crap,” Cole replies at one point to #471’s taunting questions about her childhood, and indeed The Silence of the Lambs looms large over Camp X-Ray – but not just in the movie’s fierce attention to clanging locks, bulky security doors and expertly composed conversations through panes of protective glass.
The reason Jonathan Demme’s goriest-ever Oscar-winner remains a classic has nothing to do with the then-transgressive Grand Guignol elements you can see these days on any CBS serial rapist procedural and even less to do with the character Anthony Hopkins has since cheapened past the point of self-parody. No, watching it again a couple of years ago I realized that The Silence of the Lambs still works so well because of just how effectively Demme puts us in the cheap shoes of Clarice Starling, a woman constantly slighted, underestimated and threatened just for having the unmitigated gall to try and do “a man’s job.” Silence is one of the most ripped-off and strip-mined movies of all time, but nobody’s ever touched that angle as far as I can recall, at least not until Camp X-Ray.
Of course, Kristen Stewart played Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room, so I guess it’s no surprise she makes such a great contemporary Clarice. Her long hair is pulled back tight in a massive bun that usually sits smack dab in the middle of Sattler’s widescreen compositions, visually setting her apart from the others. Technically she’s not the only woman on the base but the camera tends to keep her isolated, and Stewart’s naturally aloof screen presence doesn’t lend itself to gung-ho camaraderie.
Almost every interaction between Cole and her peers is freighted with vaguely creepy insinuations and just-kidding sexual harassment that barely remains just this side of actionable. Camp X-Ray is an ambitious film that wants to be about a great many things, but at best it is an extraordinarily empathetic portrait of what it must feel like right now to be a woman in the military. “Are you a solider or are you a female soldier?” her superior asks, “because I don’t have these kinds of problems with soldiers.”
#471 doesn’t fit in so well either. He’s a well-educated, German-born pop-culture aficionado still pissed that he got locked up here before finding out how the Harry Potter books ended. He and Cole become kindred spirits in a series of conversations that are never quite believable but always strikingly photographed and extremely well-acted. Sattler’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near up to the level of his confident, austere direction, particularly when Cole begins to realize that things aren’t as black-and-white as she thought they were, so she says to a fellow soldier: “Maybe things aren’t as black-and-white as we thought they were.”
You don’t need to write lines like that for Kristen Stewart, a fantastic actress whose sterling performances in Adventureland and The Runaways spoke volumes with a gruff, minimalist physicality. (Apparently she’s still being picked on by everybody for being lousy in some crap teen vampire movies while her former co-star Robert Pattinson gets to hang with David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog. I’m not sure when we as a nation will be able to forget about Twilight, but the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.)
Sattler seriously fumbles in the end zone, but there is so much to admire in Camp X-Ray that I found it easy to forgive his rookie mistakes and sins of ambition. At least he has the good sense not to pretend anything has been resolved, with a haunting final shot that lingers all the way through the closing credits. The movie returns to the limbo where it began, in those antiseptic hallways, everybody still walking in circles.