It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“Camp X-Ray” has cinematic and moral intelligence. This debut feature by writer-director Peter Sattler about a female soldier stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is a quiet, patient drama that focuses on a handful of characters and plays out in a few key locations: a cell, a hallway, a prison yard, some offices. It articulates its observations and emotions through shots and cuts, and actors’ reactions. It’s also about culture clashes, patriotism, idealism, duty, and what it means to be a woman in a job defined by primordial ideas of manhood. It is not a perfect movie—a couple of developments feel shoehorned in, and the final leg squanders the goodwill built up in the preceding 90 minutes—but it’s ambitious, and it has soul. It’s one of the better mainstream American film portraits of what happened to America's psyche after 9/11: the moral numbness that set in right away, and never entirely lifted.
“Twilight” star Kristen Stewart carries the film on her slender shoulders. She plays the heroine, PFC Amy Cole, a young woman from a Florida town who enlisted in the Army to learn and grow, but now finds herself at Guantanamo—also as Gitmo, or Camp X-Ray—watching over prisoners. Sorry: detainees. It’s important to use that word instead of “prisoners” because, as Amy explains to a fellow soldier, “Prisoners are subject to the Geneva Conventions. Detainees are not.”
Amy’s trainer, CPL Randy Randsell (Lane Garrison), tells her right off the bat that it’s not a good idea to see the detainees as autonomous human beings, because that will get in the way of the job. He discourages her partly by playing on her insecurity as one of a handful of women at Camp X-Ray, a camp staffed mostly by burly male soldiers guarding cell blocks full of fundamentalist Muslims who don’t like being overseen by Americans generally, American women in particular.
Amy disregards Randy’s instructions and lets a stridently
eloquent, English-speaking inmate named Amir Ali (Peyman Moaadi of “A
Separation”) engage her in conversation as she rolls a book cart up and down
the cell block hallway. The relationship between Amy, a strong-silent type, and
Ali, a chatterbox provocateur, has a ‘70s-movie feel. The filmmaker lets
Stewart act Steve McQueen-style, mostly with her eyes, body and hands. Moaadi
jabbers and squirms and wheedles like a Middle Eastern cousin of Dustin
Hoffman. Their first talk is faintly Kafka-esque: he’s read the first six
Harry Potter books and has been begging for the seventh volume for two years.
Amy can’t and won’t help him, offering him a two-week-old newspaper plus
whatever else is on the cart. Their conversations about reading material do
such a subtle job of exploring the film’s themes (they talk about Willa
Cather’s “My Antonia,” a book built around a female pioneer, as well as Harry Potter) that it’s a huge letdown when the films
pays these conversations off in a boringly conventional way.