Sundance 2014 Review: CAMP X-RAY, A Work Of Moral Ambivalence

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
I was busy processing the ending of Camp X-Ray, a film about a soldier relating to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, when I saw the credit - Executive Produced by David Gordon Green. 

It's hard to say just what effect this great filmmaker had on Peter Sattler's film, but it did lead me to think a little harder about it than I might have otherwise. And I've concluded it just might be a very good film, almost a great one, if you buy one thing - its protagonist is an idiot.

Now, this will be a bit spoilery, but you'll forgive me, as the ending of the film may either ruin it or make it something kind of great. Before we get to that, let me state unequivocally that Kristen Stewart is perfectly cast in this film. She's always had some hard features, and her role as a small-town Army girl thrust into the moral quagmire of Gitmo is played to near perfection.

Stewart provides just the right mix of toughness and fragility, and she's entirely believable in her role. She spends the best part of the film in a kind of battle of wits with the imprisoned Ali Amir, played with scene-stealing brashness by A Separation's Peyman Moaadi.

Through the film, we see the kind of transformation we expect, the humanizing factor that occurs when the prisoner begins to feel that most critical of emotions, empathy, towards their captor. There are moments of humour mixed with despair, sometimes over something as simple as the latest volume of a Harry Potter novel.

It's in these deft little moments that Sattler's script leads the audience, too, to share empathy with all involved - the supreme boredom and repetition shared by both jailer and jailed. This is an ecosystem, a sort of penal coral reef where each organism plays its role. 


[Beware -- Spoilers for the ending of the movie ahead.]

Which leads us to the most morally unsettling part of the film, its conclusion (and, again, this spoils the ending). If we're to read it on face value, Amy gives Ali the book with the inscription, finally seeing him not as a war criminal but as "a good guy". She's gone from small-town, small minded Floridian to one who can see the unfairness and cruelty of the imprisonment, and no doubt believes unequivocally that the imprisonment of Ali is both unfair and unjust.

Except, of course, both she, and we, don't know that. The most effective part of the film is when Ali is playing what Amy calls "that Hannibal Lecter" shit. We don't know what Ali has done, we only know that he has fought back against his imprisonment in a way that we all can find something heroic in that behavior, regardless of his circumstance. Yet is he a murderer? Are we to believe his claims that his interrogators find him to have done nothing wrong, that he is the lion that can no longer be led back to the wild?

We don't know, and in many ways the film is best when these answers are left unanswered, when the morality of the situation is shown to be entirely grey. Yet for Amy, she's made up her mind, and I feel that kind of catharsis will equally sway most audiences.

Except, of course, she could be seen as completely wrong. For Ali, as are we all are, are free from neither good nor evil deed. The simplistic binary that Amy is working on is simply a knee-jerk flip-flop from her previous point of view. She's gone in as a small town, small minded soldier and in some ways has left the same, having been gamed by an intellect clearly superior to her own.

It's an odd thing to have a protagonist outwitted in such a way - Clarice after all stood always one step ahead of Hannibal - but it's perhaps to this film's great credit that this film may provide a moment of catharsis that itself is even more unsettling. And just as when I thought I might be reading too much into this film, maybe giving it too much credit, I saw David Gordon Green's name up there. And then I thought, perhaps, I might not be reading enough into the film.

As an exercise in drama with some powerful performances, Camp X-Ray is a remarkable film. As a straight ahead feel-good outcome, it's problematic on face value, yet extremely deep if my reading is correct. I can't claim to know what the filmmakers had in mind, but I choose to believe that the fatuous line written in the book is so over the top, so telegraphed by earlier events that it's meant to clue in audiences that, hey, this girl's still not getting it. 

As a work of moral ambivalence, it's extremely interesting. As a jingoistic apology for imprisonment, it's flawed. I choose to believe based on the pedigree of those involved that my former reading is both the more interesting and the more accurate analysis of the film. 

[End spoilers.]


I'll leave it to you to see if you agree with my assessment.
Around the Internet:
  • [A]

    ohh I want to read this but....spoilers. I stay away from them. most of the time. unless they got candy.

    but seriously, I better bookmark this review.

  • cocoapurl

    Either way, that's what a film/art is supposed to do. It's supposed to make you think and come to your own conclusions. If you come to the conclusion that Cole is an idiot and she got duped, then that's okay. That's your interpretation, even if it wasn't the filmmakers intention. Great review.

  • goldushapple

    >>Either way, that's what a film/art is supposed to do. It's supposed to make you think and come to your own conclusions

    That's why most modern art is a joke. It tries to be philosophy and it tries to 'make you think' but in the end it has really nothing new to say.

    "Hey It's totally up to you to interpret!" How original. How ... how ... mind tingling.

  • Lua Cheia

    Then... You just don't know the definition of "art", doesn't matter each period in the art history!

    "Art" is a piece of something that speaks to you! Positively or negatively, it affects you! Doesn't matter what the artist was thinking when made it!

    I totally agree with you, Jason! When you have more knowledge or you know the people involved in the piece of art, it influences your approach, your vision, because you know their style or their approach...

    Thanks for this well written review / thoughtful analysis!

    I just hope I will have the opportunity to watch it in a silver screen in Brazil.

  • Yeah, it's a bit more than that - if the ending is taken at face value, it's terrible. After I wrote this, I checked, and most critics are seeing it as such. Yet, as I argue above, I think it might actually be working on a different level.

    We'll see, DGG's involvement makes me give it the benefit of the doubt, not as some Fanboy, but given that he tends to do something silly (think EASTBOUND AND DOWN) and yet craft something quite extraordinary out of it.

  • Marc68L

    Interesting point. I liked the film (saw it at the Sundance San Francisco screening thing they did the other night), but the ending was odd to me.... a terrible end to what I thought was previously a contemplative and quiet little film. So I guess I took it at face value, like some of the other critics and people...but on a deeper level that could definitely work...Maybe the script could have been improved a bit? It was his first film and script.

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