‘Camp X-Ray’ Proves Kristen Stewart Can Act — But We Already Knew That

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Here’s how terrible the Twilight movies are: they convinced the world that a good actress was a terrible one. I would like to tell you that her very good performance in the new film Camp X-Ray is some sort of revelation, but if you have to be told that, you haven’t been paying attention; she’s been good several times before (Adventureland and The Runaways leap to mind), even in films that were, to put it charitably, problematic (like On the Road and Welcome to the Rileys). But those pictures were all bookended by entries in The Twilight Saga, so even if the few people who saw those other films were impressed by her work in them, there was another awful Twilight movie on the horizon to remind us of how bad she could be. Those films ended in 2012. Camp X-Ray is the first Stewart film to hit theaters after them. It marks the beginning, hopefully, of a reconsideration.

Don’t get me wrong — the thesis here is not that she’s actually good in those Twilight movies. Far from it. But I would contend that a) handed those screenplays, it would be difficult for anyone to play that bullshit role well, and b) the key problem with Stewart in those films is that she is so monumentally miscast. And, as is so often the case, it takes seeing her in the right role to see how wrong she was for that one.

In Camp X-Ray, Stewart plays PFC Amy Cole, a new recruit learning the ropes at Guantanamo Bay. It begins in 2009, with both the guards and detainees fully aware that they are basically in purgatory, from whence the men behind the metal doors can neither go home nor go forward. It’s pretty standard stuff, story-wise; Stewart’s green recruit at first spars with, then befriends a detainee (Peyman Moaadi, very good), and ya know, if these two can find an understanding, can’t we all, etc. etc.

It’s fairly formulaic and predictable, and there are a couple of shots near the end that are positively cringe-inducing. But stay with me here, because Kristen Stewart is downright terrific. She is, first of all, totally credible as a soldier, from the swagger in her step to the crispness of her salute. She just looks right in the uniform, her hair pulled into an airtight bun, her face a hard, blank slate. The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg got at those qualities in a wonderful analysis of the movie’s trailer a couple of months back: “Kristen Stewart was meant to grimace and scowl and hold her feelings in tightly until her mouth turns into a single compressed line and punch things and lean against walls. Here she has been given adequate scope for her talents.”

The character’s external toughness matches her internal life. In the early scenes, she speaks in a low, flat voice, no-nonsense, yet putting across her desire to make a good impression and do what she’s there to do — she has only a moment’s hesitation before volunteering, on her first day, to take on a raging inmate, and when she gets clocked in the process, a commander’s “Welcome to Gitmo” prompts the faintest hint of a smile. But she’s not one of these guards, not really (more on that later), and while the emotional arc of softening towards her detainee friend is obvious, it’s never explicitly stated — it’s purely reactive and subtexual. Stewart never overplays her hand; the character’s entire transition (particularly after it basically becomes a two-hander) is seen in the way she listens to him and the way she looks at him, especially at a disturbing moment later in the film when she is ordered to.

Aside from the long-delayed arrival of an emotional response late in the picture, none of this requires broadly telegraphed breakdowns and teary-eyed vulnerability. In fact, Stewart’s highly internalized style is what makes the character float; she’s like a throwback to the Brando and Dean school, and her critics are like the snobs who accused those actors of being nothing more than “mumblers.” Ortberg again:

For years, everyone in the world has misunderstood Kristen Stewart’s compressed emotional range. They thought it meant she was a limited actress; it means nothing of the kind. She is John Wayne being forced to play the Maureen O’Hara character. Give her a rail to lean against during a sunset, a military jacket, a toothpick to chew on, and something to squint her eyes against lazily in the distance, and her guardedness will be transformed from unsuccessful femininity to The Great American Male. Kristen Stewart is a goddamn cowboy.

The baggage Stewart brings to Camp X-Ray makes its first hour more compelling than anything in the screenplay. If the character is out of her depth, there’s a question as to whether the actor is as well; both certainly walk into Gitmo (the setting and the set) with something to prove, and when obstructions are placed in front of them, their jaw hardens and they proceed with even greater determination. In scenes off the prison floor, you can see her trying to fit in, and almost pulling it off. But Cole doesn’t belong among those lunkheads, any more than Stewart belonged in those garbage-pile Twilight movies. And to that end, the silent shots that close Camp X-Ray show us what may be our first real glimpse of Kristen Stewart, Movie Actor: hard-boiled, wiser, stronger. A goddamn cowboy.