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Review: Camp X-Ray (Sundance 2014)

Camp X-Ray (Sundance 2014)
01.21.2014
7 10

PLOT: A young woman (Kristen Stewart) stationed as a guard at Guantanamo Bay forms an unlikely friendship with a charismatic prisoner (Payman Maadi).

REVIEW: A movie about Guantanamo Bay is sure to divide audiences. Now that CAMP X-RAY has premiered to mostly solid buzz at the Sundance film festival, you can expect it to stir up a ton of controversy once it gets released (a theatrical bow seems a certainty). It's sure to be a conversation starter, which- more than anything else- seems like the film's ultimate purpose.

At its heart, CAMP X-RAY is not an overtly political film in that it doesn't take any kind of clear political stance. Director Peter Sattler tries to tell his story in as balanced a way as possible, although considering the subject matter that's not always so easy. Certainly the film is not in favour of the Gitmo treatment, pointing out early-on that the people locked up there are called "detainees" rather than prisoners, as prisoners would have rights. Rather, the detainees exist in a kind of limbo, with the film focusing on one such detainee- played by Payman Maadi.

What's interesting about Sattler's use of the likable and charismatic Maadi here is that whether or not the character is in fact a terrorist or linked to Al-Queda is left ambiguous. The opening scene suggests that he is in fact linked with some kind of terror activity, being in the possession of dozens of disposable cell phones, all neatly and foreboding arranged on the kitchen table of his dingy apartment, while 9-11 footage plays on the TV in the background (one of the few times Sattler goes overboard spoon-feeding information to his audience). However, whether or not he's guilty is beside the point, with the idea here being that if he is in fact guilty, even being a prisoner would be better than existing in a sort of never ending limbo.

Maadi's performance is terrific. Western audiences may recognize him from his part as the soon-to-be-divorced husband in A SEPARATION. Despite the character's possible terrorist links, Maadi makes him an unexpectedly likable guy. As opposed to his angry, women-hating detainees who scream out "whore" when Stewart's character is on duty, Maadi tried to engage her in conversation without ulterior motives. He's simply bored and lonely. In one of the film's few moments of levity, Maadi tells Stewart, who he calls "Blondie" about his love of Harry Potter, and how he thinks the guards are keeping the final book in the series from him to torture him, with his biggest concern being over whether Snape is a good guy or not. Potterverse fans will no doubt relate.

Compared to Maadi, Stewart's got the more pedestrian part. In the past she's been accused of being a somewhat flat screen-presence but here her initial apathy works well within the story, and her gradual enlightenment is well-played and never abrupt. Still, despite her getting the lion's share of the screen-time, she's clearly the less interesting half of the relationship, and while Stewart is fine, she's never dynamic.

Maybe part of the problem is that she has very little to do, with Maadi getting all the profound dialogue. A sub-plot involving her being harassed and bullied by a superior officer goes nowhere,and that conflict, which is given great importance early-on, is ignored in the final act.

While Stewart's part is a bit flat, Maadi's so strikingly good that the film can't help but stay compelling throughout. At times, CAMP X-RAY even manages to be thought-provoking, thanks to the always timely and distressing subject. This isn't a perfect film, but it's certainly a worthwhile one.

Source: JoBlo.com

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