“Though Kristen Stewart experienced stratospheric fame via the Twilight franchise, she’s always seemed more at home as an actress in the world of independent film, and they don’t come much more indie than the low-budget Camp X-Ray,” writes Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan. “Stewart stars as Cole, a newbie Guantanamo Bay guard who keeps the brim of her hat pulled down over her eyes and whose hair-bun is as tightly wound as the expression on her face. When Cole volunteers to help subdue an inmate on her very first day at the notorious detention camp, that eager-beaver move earns her first a punch in the face from said inmate, then, as she’s tending to her bloody lip, a hocked loogie straight into her eyes. ‘Welcome to Gitmo,’ says her superior officer with a smirk. Snow White and the Huntsman, this ain’t.”
“Writer-director Peter Sattler, whose feature debut this is, is keen for us to know the former Twilight star can take a hit, even as the camera lingers on Cole tightening her hair bun and reining in her feelings,” writes Joshua Rothkopf for Time Out. “Nonetheless, those feelings come into play as she bonds, initially against her will, with chatty, English-speaking Ali (Peyman Moaadi), an eight-year prisoner frustrated by the library cart’s lack of the final Harry Potter book. How does the magical saga end? Just as you’re reeling from the tackiness of this premise, set within such an explosive context, the plot doubles down on it: Ali starts calling her Blondie and she tells him to ‘cut the Hannibal Lecter shit.’ That’s exactly where things are headed, though, and you cringe at banter yet to come.”
Variety‘s Rob Nelson: “Camp X-Ray is most commendable for believably depicting the U.S. military from a female officer’s point of view, particularly as Cole gets mistreated by a macho male corporal (Lane Garrison) and dares to fight the invisible war by filing a report with the commanding officer (John Carroll Lynch). So, too, the film treats its characters, guards and inmates alike, with clear compassion, although, as a terror-war movie, its preoccupation with the heartwarming exception to the rule too often turns bold American drama into standard operating procedure.”
In the “lean establishing scenes, Sattler and editor Geraud Brisson lay a foundation of atmospheric tension, aided by the measured movement and steady gaze of James Laxton’s widescreen digital camerawork and by Jess Stroup’s moody melodic score,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “At a fraction under two hours, the film could benefit from minor tightening, particularly of some midsection slackening. But the continuing evolution of Amy’s cautious friendship with Ali is observed with emotional integrity and poignancy, depicting two intelligent people in contrasting states of confinement, each of them seeking contact.”
“Ostensibly innocent of whatever crime has been leveled against him, Ali seems to view Amy as both a target for venting and catharsis,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “While that idea holds plenty of appeal, Sattler wastes time drawing out the dour nature of Gitmo’s day to day routines, minus the interrogation sessions. An episode involving prisoners hurling ‘shit cocktails’ at the guards is unsettling for all the wrong reasons: It adds a grotesque quality to a movie that’s core engine should be its muted environment and hushed exchanges. Moaadi, so great in Asgar Farhadi’s A Separation, here plays a one-note persona at once eloquent and curiosity naive. There’s an accidental irony to this thinly devised role as the movie avoids fleshing out the very character Amy struggles to understand.”
“Whether Sattler wants his film to be political or not, it is, simply by virtue of the ideas it addresses,” argues Drew McWeeney at HitFix. “While I understand the hole that our government dug for itself with the detainees, I don’t understand the utter lack of forward motion regarding what we’re supposed to do with these people…. For a country that spends so much time talking about the importance of freedom, we seem perfectly content to deny that to people over vague possible wrongdoing, and happy to have those people out of sight where we don’t have to think about it.”
“The movie doesn’t dig too far under the surface,” writes Matt Patches for Vanity Fair, “but Stewart is a watchable pawn in the prison’s mechanics.”
Meantime, Sattler’s filled out Indiewire‘s Sundance questionnaire.
Updates, 1/19: “If nothing else, Sattler’s fumbled Gitmo romance proves that its star, Kristen Stewart, is well set for a fulfilling career outside the lucrative Twilight franchise,” writes the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “But the film itself is so crude and overstretched, it’s a wonder she didn’t attempt to tunnel out before the credits rolled.”
EW‘s Owen Gleiberman: “Ever since I watched Stewart in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, the incandescent ’80s nostalgia movie that premiered at Sundance four years ago, I have seen what she can do in the right role, working with a director who knows how to harness her snarky brainy moodiness…. But in Camp X-Ray, I never believed—not for a moment—that she was someone in the military. She has no toughness, no moxie, no callouses on her hide.”
Viewing (4’39”). Sattler, Stewart, Moaadi and Lane Garrison talk to EW.
Updates, 1/21: William Goss at Film.com: “Sattler makes a recurring point of equating Amy’s own solitary existence with Ali’s cold cell—because hey, it’s like they’re both trapped by this single-minded pursuit of justice—or associating Muslim holy prayer with the all-American ritual of raising and saluting the flag. Thankfully, these two kindred spirits spark a mutual empathy which bolsters their shared scenes, meaning the two-hour-long film conversely suffers whenever Amy instead has to quietly bear the brunt of a gruff superior officer.”
Emma Jones for the Independent: “Moaadi’s excellence in these exchanges elevates Stewart: this is the best we’ve ever seen her.”
For Indiewire, Taylor Lindsay talks with cinematographer James Laxton.
Updates, 2/1: “There are too many bogus attempts at complicating the story, and even more wide-eyed revelations,” finds Wesley Morris, writing at Grantland. “But eventually Sattler’s camera makes its way into Ali’s cell, and the film tries to open up. For one thing, Mooadi is giving a performance that, despite its showiness, dramatizes the moral-philosophical problem: Under circumstances as ambiguous as these, how does someone even this full of life not consider taking it?”
For John Wildman, dispatching to Film Comment, “Stewart might be the least convincing soldier since Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War. However, for the significant portion of the moviegoing public who favor a superficial narrative that tugs at the heart strings, Maadi’s performance fits the bill.”