Set in the infamous detainee camp of Guantanamo Bay, “Camp X Ray” is designed as something of a monotonous slog. New to the joint, Pvt. Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) is immediately indoctrinated to its grimly repetitive procedures, and watching as she buzzes her way through a series of same-looking security doors is like going down the rabbit hole of mindless procedure. True, some of the detainees are often riled up, screaming, psycho-screwing with the MP’s and even hurling bags of you-don’t-want-to-know-what; yet just as often the film deliberately rubs our faces in the mundane. Its closing credits sequence features simple footage of Guantanamo guards making their endless, circular rounds, over and over, on and on into infinity. It’s a drab, unloving environment where the MP’s can’t wear name tags, stripping them of personal identity, and purposely refraining from niceties with those in their charge. This works to allow those few occasional pockets of humanistic sunshine that inevitably shine on down to feel like a legit hallelujahs.
The story turns on Amy’s relationship with Ali (Peyman Moaadi). Encountering him on her rounds, he forces conversation on her, provokes her, tests her, and eventually senses a glimmer of compassion, causing him to engage her on an emotional level that nonetheless remains tinged with suspicion. And even if an obligatorily tentative mutual respect emerges between them, in many ways, they remain at odds, and how could they not? No one particularly wants to be here, not the detainees, not the MP’s, not the commanding officers. Amy’s superior sullenly declares he hates Guantanamo and is only there because he was ordered, just as Amy was ordered, and on down the line. The detainees, of course, have been ordered here too, against their will, and now everyone is forced is forced to play what essentially amounts to a waiting game where they aren’t really waiting for anything.
They are all prisoners, in other words, and occasionally the film gets too aggressive in its evincing of this fact, like the on-the-nose back-to-back shots that show Amy first, then Ali, sitting on their bunks, eating and reading. And it also goes to expected lengths to question who “the real enemy” is by transforming Amy’s supervisor into someone of questionable moral merit, coming onto Amy, then turning on her when she rejects him.
“Camp X Ray” mostly evades politics, and the few times it does deign to raise them, it does so with an almost ridiculously simple temperament, prompting Amy to say things like “It’s just not as black and white as they said it was gonna be.” What brought Ali here is never discussed. Though the opening scene in which he is nabbed shows him with a table full of mobile phones suggests something is up, there is no follow through. Ali claims his innocence, but we are given no evidence of exactly why this would be and neither is Amy.
Though the rushed conclusion is too determined to traffic in sentimentality, something real is forged between these characters regardless, and that something subtly comes alive in the performance of Stewart who, between bouts of order-giving terseness, skillfully lets her character’s curiosity peek out. She isn’t concerned with his guilt or innocence and this doesn’t become a quest for justice; this is a quest for empathy.