To say Kristen Stewart is a reluctant celebrity would be a laughable understatement. Now shed of the Twilight movies and their accompanying publicity campaigns, she seems determined to become the actress she would have been if Bella (and Robert Pattinson) hadn’t come into her life. And in Peter Sattler’s new film Camp X-Ray, which had its high-profile (thanks to its star) premiere at Sundance on Friday, Stewart plays, of all things, a guard at Guantanamo Bay. And she is very good in it.
Stewart’s character, Cole, is a cypher at first: For most of the movie, we don’t know her first name, or anything about her. She comes to Guantanamo clearly determined to overcome any fear she has about being there, and to escape her life. She’s angry, stone-faced, energized by the prisoners’ agitations, and wanting to belong among her fellow military comrades. Lane Garrison, who is starting to make a career comeback after his imprisonment for vehicular homicide several years ago, plays Cole’s boss, a leeringly fratty corporal who hates the prisoners (or detainees, as they’re called to avoid abiding by the Geneva Conventions). There is one other female character in the movie, who’s more of a party girl, and we never hear her speak; the two women seem to think they have no reason to talk to each other.
The story’s thrust comes from Cole’s back-and-forths with Detainee 471 — played by Payman Maadi, who is both sinister and beguiling — who tells her his name is Ali. He is handsome, smart, and a good conversationalist; but he also throws shit at Cole. I suspect you will be hearing about Maadi and this role. Let’s hope the film industry can make way for him, and that he doesn’t always have to play a terrorist.
Or a possible terrorist. As we know from the real world, it’s unclear what the current incarcerations at Guantanamo have gotten us — and we also know that President Obama broke his promise to close the prison because no one can figure out what to do with the men inside. That thread of frustration and hopelessness runs through Camp X-Ray, which takes place eight years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There’s a Harry Potter metaphor that runs through the film — about Snape — that symbolizes the Sundance movie’s powerful emotional impact and its symmetrically constructed narrative. But it’s also indicative of Camp X-Ray’s tendency to overreach sometimes. Ali begins his interactions with Cole by demanding the seventh and last book in the Harry Potter series; he says he knows it exists, never gets to read it, and needs to know whether Snape is a good guy or a bad guy. It’s the kind of framing that’s designed to pay off in a play-like screenplay like Sattler’s. And it does.
As Camp X-Ray’s story unfolds, and Cole begins to identify with and like Ali, the movie relies on what’s become Stewart’s signature awkwardness. And by the film’s end, Cole has transformed. If that’s Stewart’s goal as well, Camp X-Ray is an excellent start.