Sundance 2014: Kristen Stewart & Melodrama Restrain 'Camp X-Ray'
by Ethan Anderton
January 18, 2014
While controversy still stirs around the fact that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp remains open after a promise to close from our Commander in Chief, graphic designer turned writer/director Peter Sattler attempts to pour salt on the wound with Camp X-Ray. The film follows a young female soldier (Kristen Stewart) newly positioned at the infamous detainee (we don't call them prisoners to avoid upholding the Geneva Convention) camp. As the superior officer explains, the soldiers' responsibility isn't to keep these detainees locked up, it's to keep them alive. And it's one of the most monotonous jobs the military offers.
From the very beginning, it's easy to see that Sattler intends to show just how despicable and even silly a detainment camp like Guantanamo Bay actually can be. While Sattler tries to lend weight to his argument against camps such as this by having a soldier be the one experience these questionable tactics and treatment of detainees on site, it feels artificial and full of melodrama, removing any real impact the film might have had. Though the director cleverly uses the monotony of these soldiers' tasks in repetitive sequences as a way to get the message even further across, it's just the tip of a heavy-handed iceberg that the film slams the audience into enough times to sink a dozen Titanics. The soldiers are like prisoners too!
Peyman Maaodi (who broke out in A Separation) does his best to give the film some gravitas as a friendly, seemingly falsely accused detainee, but it seems all too convenient that every single other member of the accused is the portrait of a cliche, Middle Eastern suspected terrorist. This film gives no depth to anything that doesn't involve Stewart and Maaodi, making it feel careless and lazy. Still, Maaodi deserves plenty of praise for maintaining his part in the film, which seems to be the only worthwhile piece of work on display.
It doesn't help that Stewart offers little in the way of an on-screen counterpart. While the actress has tried hard to leave behind The Twilight Saga with roles in films like The Runaways, Welcome to the Rileys and On the Road, this effort just seems to be an exaggerated effort, and her performance doesn't inspire any new confidence. Stewart seems only capable of limited facial expressions, mostly scowls, but at least a role in the military is fitting of her cold, lifeless abilities, which could almost be a compliment.
But the real problem with the film comes from the script. Complete with contrived dialogue, and a scenario that the military simply wouldn't allow, the story is melodramatic and weak. While the narrative has noble intentions and attempts to shine a necessary light on a failing system in our military, there are elements of this film that feel like a TV movie from the 90s. The film is relentless in hitting home the criticism of the military's operation of Guantanamo Bay, but it brings nothing new to the table, and opts for the obvious hammering of an agenda, which wouldn't be unacceptable if it was done more eloquently.
Camp X-Ray tries too hard to make a statement, rather than telling a quality story. If it wasn't for Maaodi as a co-star this film would be flawed all over the place. And while the ending offers a glimmer of hope for a story that once wasn't overshadowed by the film's all too clear theme, that too suffers from being mawkishly sentimental. For anyone hoping Stewart might finally show her acting chops have some bite, this is greatly disappointing. And while it's hard to argue with the idea put forth in the film's narrative, it's easy to see that this film lacks subtlety and lessens what could've been a devastating, provoking piece of filmmaking.
Ethan's Sundance 2014 Rating: 4 out of 10
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