Blu-ray Review: Camp X-Ray

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Don’t let Camp X-Ray slip undetected, below your radar, as it has done for so many (it was barely released to limited theatrical screenings). This indie offers a thought-provoking portrait of a young Army private working the rather thankless role as a guard at Guantanamo Bay. The inmates of the detention camp are detainees. Don’t call them “prisoners” or they’ll be entitled to rights promised by the Geneva Convention. PFC Amy Cole is portrayed by Kristen Stewart, who is for some reason one of the more polarizing actresses of her generation. For my money, Stewart is an extraordinary performer (yes, even in the Twilight movies; I would make the case that she almost single-handedly makes worth watching). Be it Adventureland, The Runaways, Welcome to the Rileys, or Still Alice (to name a few highlights), she’s putting together an impressive roster of finely-nuanced characterizations that have made her one of the most interesting actresses in movies today.

Camp X Ray 2 (380x267).jpgCamp X-Ray joins that list and her work as the emotionally-conflicted PFC Cole is matched beat-for-beat by the equally magnetic Peyman Moaadi. Moaadi plays Gitmo detainee Ali Amir. We don’t know exactly why he’s whiling away his time in a small cell, but we do know he’s a Harry Potter addict (I guess the Twilight series would’ve been too meta). He slowly builds an unlikely friendship with Cole, even after he douses her with a pot of watery feces when the hatch in his cell door is opened. We see Cole attempt to bond with her fellow servicemen, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s something of a fish out of water. She’s constantly, but mostly silently, questioning what she’s actually accomplishing as she pushes around a food cart and spends her days peeking through window slits to make sure the detainees aren’t acting up. When PFC Rico Cruz (nicely played by Joseph Julian Soria) slowly succumbs to groupthink when he alone seemed sympathetic to her concerns, Stewart subtly conveys the confused isolation Cole experiences.

The movie works best when approached as a two-person character study. Cole and Moaadi gradually get to know each other, learning something about each other’s life and perspective. Writer-director Peter Sattler’s reach somewhat exceeds his grasp. Camp X-Ray is far from successful as it dips into a touch of political commentary. He stacks the deck by making both Cole and Moaadi such purely sympathetic characters. But at the same time, the film isn’t really intended as a partisan statement. There are a lot of detainees being guarded by Cole and company of whom we see very little. Some are clearly more aggressive than Moaadi, but by never letting on to why they’re being held, Sattler keeps the film squarely on the fence. For some, that might be considered a cop out. It could also be called naïve. At worst, it would be understandable for some (especially military personnel) to view this simplified presentation as disrespectful. But that doesn’t take anything away from the excellent acting and strong dialogue. Let’s be honest, Sattler hasn’t promised a political dissertation here so we shouldn’t expect one.

Camp X Ray poster (257x380).jpgLaxton’s Superb may be a type of apple found in England, but here the term might well apply to James Laxton’s cinematography. Using an Arri Alexa digital camera, Laxton achieved documentary-style realism with the look of Camp X-Ray. MPI Home Video has done a nice job of presenting his work in high definition. The Blu-ray has a DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack that nicely highlights Jess Stroup’s original score.

The lone special feature is a “making of” featurette that is about as illuminating as a 12-minute EPK piece can be (which is to say, not very). So while there isn’t much to recommend in terms of bonuses, Camp X-Ray is well worth checking out. It’s a film that dares to provoke thought, even though it knows very well that there are no easy answers to the ethical questions it poses.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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