Camp X-Ray is a peculiar beast of a movie, starting off with a 2002 news report on post-9/11 events as a man is taken from his room mid-prayer before we get our introduction to the new recruits in 2010 Guantanamo Bay coming in on boat to the facility and learning the ropes, and soon settling on Kristen Stewart's Cole, avoiding being the life of the party like other new recruits among them, whilst following orders that tell guards not to communicate with the prisoners. Except one particular prisoner, Peyman Moaadi's Ali, continually calls out to her as she patrols the cell block. Once the film settles on what it wants to be it becomes the story of two people in an inhumane landscape slightly cracking their hardened skins for one another.
Camp X-Ray is as stubborn as a Gitmo guard in allowing us to enter its heart, even Cole is pushed far back from the audience, we watch her but we never really feel her or understand her, so a lot of the opening act plays out as dry, to the point where a ten minute cell block patrol sequence can get close to tedious between moments where humanity is glinted at, but that's just as they want to make the film. We are viewers in this landscape, we are not allowed to be active among the film because for security reasons they have to lock us away. Stewart manages to play to the cold perfectly, the glimmers and moments of honest humanity are few but worth waiting for, whilst her work portraying a glorified prison guard, as it is, is exceptionally quiet and holds the screen without showing she is holding the screen, even if she gets lost in ensemble scenes, where everyone is uniform and as important as one another.
The cast is minimal but strong, John Carroll Lynch pops up as a Colonel who offers sweets but not a dose of sugar, whilst Cory Michael Smith, Tara Holt, Lane Garrison and Joseph Julian Soria fill out the guard unit with gravity and quiet earnestness. A last-minute sort-of cameo from Kyle Bornheimer is a bit bizarre for anyone who looks out for him, but not distracting or anything beyond strong. The work in creating the film is exceptional, the location, the feeling, it's cold and miserable and bleak and concrete and metal in aesthetic and emotion. That is, however, Camp X-Ray's biggest downfall. With Act One being so very unfocussed, the lack of heart of humanity, as understandable a choice as it is, becomes a problem because we have to just sit there and take what we are given.
Camp X-Ray has so much greatness going for it that it is infuriating when so much of the beginning, and a rather clichéd climax, feel like they could have been handled differently to craft an exceptional, brutal, intense, bleak and honest piece. There's just something not quite right in the mix, but it certainly isn't to do with the performers, all of whom are on top of their game. A lot to like, and respect, but not enough to make it worth revisiting anytime soon.