It seems like ages since Guantanamo Bay was major headline news; its questionable purpose both fascinating and repulsive in equal measure. Debut writer-director Peter Sattler’s new prison drama, Camp X-Ray based in the Cuban lockdown is a cinematic nudge to remind us of this Kryptonite rock still weighing around the United States’ neck.
Just the title alone piques the interest, but this is much more than ‘a drama set in Gitmo’ (as it’s affectionately known). Camp X-Ray is an intense character study of life in incarceration for guard and guarded, without angling for obvious shock tactics. Its core ‘relationship’ is used to tentatively explore the line between whose ‘right and wrong’?
US Private Cole (Kristen Stewart) is newly assigned to Guantanamo Bay to guard the ‘detainees’ – not ‘prisoners’ or they would be subject to the Geneva Convention. Feeling alienated from her fellow soldiers, she reluctantly and unexpectedly strikes up an unusual acquaintance with one of the men, Ali (Peyman Moaadi from A Separation), who she is ordered to guard 24-7 and has been locked up for eight years.
The intriguing and overriding factor of this story is both characters are ‘trapped’, though for different reasons. The mood bristles with tension from this alone, without resorting to the usual, foreboding prison-drama build-up, before trouble ignites. This is very much a unique meeting of minds, with both characters’ back stories left ambiguous as to what landed them there. In this sense, we are left to make up our minds as to Ali’s ‘guilt’, rather than be subjected to possible incriminating visuals.
This ambiguity works in the plot’s favour, allowing us to get to know the characters as they stand in their current situation, without any baggage influencing our judgement. All we do know is Cole is in the Army – though she doesn’t seem entirely happy – and Ali has a love of Harry Potter books. Even the latter’s religious commitments remain questionable. Sattler’s script does well to reveal tit bits when the moment calls for it. That’s not to say that the filmmaker’s overall critical view of Gitmo is not apparent, but he does well to not throw in his full hand up front.
Sattler’s film works well because his casting is on the mark. Stewart is known for her awkward screen portrayals. As Cole, she plays to her strengths, relying on all that Twilight Bella frustration to find its outlet in a soldier in emotional turmoil. It’s a meatier role for her natural talents in this respect, and combined with blunt retorts, allows her to effortlessly flesh out Cole as struggling to retain self-control but bursting with unanswered questions. That said the female soldier still comes across as a little two-dimensional until the confrontation scene near the end that redeems this. The majority of her screen time is spent getting to this point, mostly witnessing a soldier who doesn’t fit, but without having more clear insight as to why?
Once again, Moaadi delivers another finely layered performance, this time as Ali, maintaining the mystery surrounding him while cultivating an edgy presence as to his next movement – one of benevolence or violence. Ali is not just the terrorist folk devil but also a repressed human being, making him the only truly exciting character. His origins and thought processes keep you guessing so driving the plot. Even in a revealing moment, we are still not entirely sure as to his next move. The ending feels a little far-fetched and desperate to leave a positive spin. Still, J K Rowling must find it rather bemusing that her wizard franchise is woven into a Gitmo narrative if nothing else.