The best thing about “Camp X-Ray” is its almost palpable depiction of futility: Inside the featureless hallways of the prison at Guantanamo, guards make their constant rounds, peering through each cell-door window every few seconds, moving in circles around the rooms.
Soldiers compare their dismal work to their forefathers’ heroic duty in World War II, sardonically noting that the food given to their Muslim prisoners is better than the chow in the mess hall.
But, as we learn early on, guards can’t refer to their prisoners as “prisoners” — that would make them subject to the statutes of the Geneva Convention. These are “detainees,” and they are never put on trial, and nothing ever changes, and the soldiers keep making their rounds.
Our point of view in “Camp X-Ray” is provided by Private Cole (Kristen Stewart), a newcomer. The moment she engages in conversation with a detainee named Ali (Payman Maadi), we know where the movie is going: Despite the fact that this first encounter ends with him throwing his own feces on her, they will build a relationship that allows them to make a human connection within a dehumanizing situation.
First-time director Peter Sattler wants us to wonder about whether Ali might have another motive here, and an early reference to Hannibal Lecter reminds us of the more sinister possibilities of a young woman from the sticks falling under the spell of a better-educated man in a prison cell. But the movie’s sincere liberal blueprint means there really won’t be any surprises in store.
The arc of “Camp X-Ray” is programmed out, but the movie is watchable for its minimalist style and its dedicated performances. Stewart is always a somber, emotionally committed actress (even in the midst of the “Twilight” nonsense), and here her narrowed eyes convey the wariness of a newcomer afraid of looking weak.
Payman Maadi is the lead actor from the great Iranian film “A Separation,” and he makes Ali both calculating and furious. What’s interesting about their relationship is that Cole and Ali spend the entire film in separate spaces, on opposite sides of a door or fence.
They are faces seen through a window, framed by the dark red of the heavy doors. That limited perspective gives much of the movie the quality of existing inside a confessional. For all the film’s shortcomings, there is something intense about that hothouse encounter.
“Camp X-Ray” (2½ stars)
This film’s theme is a little forced — a guard (Kristen Stewart) and “detainee” (Payman Maadi) at Guantanamo learn lessons through their interaction — yet the actors and the minimalist style give it weight. At the very least, the film conveys an almost palpable futility.
Rating: R, for language, violence
Showing: Sundance Cinemas Seattle