Let's get this out of the way now: Kristen Stewart is fine in Camp X-Ray, the tough-minded/soft-hearted drama that packs America's sweetheart off to Guantánamo Bay. The fact that such casting seems unlikely might be part of why she succeeds. Tasked with patrolling a cellblock of detainees for 12 hours at a time, Stewart's Private Cole is a newbie everyone assumes is in over her head. It's no surprise when, before the film's through its first act, she's had the foulest of human waste chucked at her. Ever read what dudes type about the Twilight star in comment threads?
Stewart plays Cole with her million-dollar hair bunned up, her movie-star litheness layered beneath formless fatigues, her eyes raw, and the dusting of freckles on her cheekbones exposed. She knuckles up her face, beating back all feeling but the blunt-edged boredom of the modern soldier, showing us a woman who is often playing a role herself: the prison guard who feels nothing, the regular woman from Florida who's every bit as strong and capable as the men around her — and who must prove that without ever looking like she's trying to.
So Stewart's refined bone structure is no distraction here. She's convincing as a kid from nowhere who, with no real prospects, signed up after 9/11 because she wanted to make a difference but winds up ground out and disillusioned. She's best in the moments, in the film's middle, when Cole struggles to swallow back new and larger feelings than her ennui. Ali (the wonderful Peyman Moaadi), an English-speaking detainee originally from Germany, picks at her as she patrols his block: "Blondie," he says, "why you treat me like asshole?" (She's not blonde; unlike the men she serves with, Ali feels comfortable acknowledging that Cole is not the usual soldier.) He'll berate her, arguing that America is the world's true source of terrorism, and he'll scrape away at the foundation of her beliefs: He asks her how she came to believe in her Christian God — just through an accident of parenting? Stewart's Cole pretends to blink away questions like that, but you see them weigh on her. Her circuit, passing each cell door every three minutes, has become a thoughtful plod.
He's handsome enough, and she's played by Kristen Stewart, so an attraction proves unavoidable. Outside the final scenes, first-time writer-director Peter Sattler keeps this mostly low-key despite his weakness for pedantry. Cole feels little connection to the men she serves with. Perhaps inevitably, one presses his affections too far during an off-day of drinking. But Ali: He may on occasion throw his feces at her, but he also wants to talk about life, about books, about their common humanity, and Moaadi (so memorable in A Separation) deftly navigates Ali's tenderness and rage. Here's a smart man penned up and reduced, brought so low that he fights with the only weapon he has, his own filth. More charmingly, he makes his own sudoku puzzles, and he's amused when Cole — apparently not a Harry Potter reader — presumes that The Prisoner of Azkaban must be an Arabic book.
The film's strongest passages concern a corporal's annoyance that Cole and a detainee have started to hit it off. As a humiliation, for both the soldier and the prisoner, he orders her to guard Ali as he showers, a violation of both religious sensitivity and the Army's operating procedure. Cole reports this to an unmoved superior, who asks, "You filed against another soldier because the detainee was uncomfortable?" As Sattler has it, it's rare and courageous for an American serving in Gitmo to consider the prisoners as human. His point might be better taken if he applied that same generosity of spirit to Cole's colleagues — surely there's one guy who isn't a son of a bitch, right?
Sattler's Guantánamo Bay may or may not look like the real thing, but it is convincingly sparse, all fluorescence and corridors, a cinderblock holding pen. His compositions smartly emphasize the rigid, repetitive life endured by soldiers and prisoners both: Stewart's tight bun, coils of razor wire, guards in formation, red cell doors set into a white wall. At times the correspondences feel pushy: Cole's bunk rather pointedly resembles Ali's cell, and Camp X-Ray cuts from detainees on their prayer mats to soldiers in a flag salute. Ritualized duty and belief are all that keep these characters going.
The style loosens during some long scenes of conversation, when the movie begins to suggest a stage play, one whose script is not as expertly crafted as the best of Camp X-Ray. In the last 20 minutes, the actors seem to be willing their characters toward the moments of heightened drama. Rather than caught up in new awareness of their common humanity, Cole and Ali feel like they're trying to get everything they feel on the record before the film ends. Still, for much of its running time, Camp X-Ray stands as the fullest on-screen imaginative treatment of two of the defining developments of the last 15 years of American life: the deployment of women in our volunteer army, and the indefinite detention of men we think, but can't quite prove, deserve it. Sattler never tells us what Ali or Cole did to get there, but he and his cast make certain we know that neither achieved what they had hoped for. The final beat between them is so ridiculous — and demonstrates such childish credulousness on the part of Cole — that the same could be said of Sattler himself.
Written and directed by Peter Sattler. Starring Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, John Carroll Lynch, and Lane Garrison.