I recently caught up with John Curran’s Tracks and found myself marveling at star Mia Wasikowska. Not so much for her performance, although she is great in it, but rather how the Australian actress has somehow been able to carve a strong, viable, and successful career for herself making predominantly independent movies with the likes of David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), and Richard Ayoade (The Double). And that’s just in 2014. Oh sure, she has Alice in Wonderland to keep a steady big paycheck coming in, but she has become a sort of emblem for the way a generation of new filmmaking avenues – digital, independent, VOD, etc – when combined with the ever-expanding online news cycle granting wider coverage of an industry with a shrinking audience size, has allowed for her and other performers like her to have a newfound level of dictatorship over their own careers.
I thought similarly after having watched Peter Sattler’s debut film, Camp X-Ray. It’s a small movie and one that wouldn’t have gotten the amount of press it has received if it weren’t for starring Kristen Stewart, who, like Wasikowska, has a few giant blockbusters to her credit and is now parlaying that fame into a career that in 2014 has included an indie alzheimer’s drama gaining her Oscar buzz, a female-centric film from a French auteur, and this, a study of human moral conflict within the confines of Guantanamo Bay.
I am currently reading a Bette Davis biopic from the early 1980s, and it describes in details the many struggles that the famed actress had in finding films that she actually wanted to make. Held back, she felt, by a team at Warner Bros – the studio that had, in essence, purchased her in the day of star contracts – that were giving her bad scripts and not properly capitalizing on the fame she had amassed. I know it’s a long bow to stretch, but I find them a curious comparison, seeing how Stewart appears to be utilising her fame (even the face of sexist and ridiculous “just smile!” complaints) to now take on roles that challenge her idea of self and the narrative of her career.
Even if they’re not always successful (she was probably the best thing about the lackluster 2012 adaptation of On the Road), at least she is allowing herself to stake a claim on her own career in a way that wouldn’t have been possible to such an extent at any other time in the industry’s history. I like to consider it an influence of the newly globalized Hollywood that looks beyond it’s own industry walls and has proven through the likes of Nicole Kidman that you can be an important, influential movie-star without necessarily making movies that wring nine figures at the box office if you’re good enough, work hard enough, and try to work with interesting filmmakers. It’s an autonomy of self that is mirrored in the character Stewart portrays in the film; a woman who is finally being exposed to a larger world inspiring moral curiosities that will surely only continue to grow when she returns to the rather hypocritically labelled “real world”.
On that level of thinking, Camp X-Ray is a strong film, one made only better by the presence of Stewart, an actress whose seemingly trademarked sullenness provides an appropriate jumping off point for the character of Amy Cole, a guard at Gitmo who befriends a detainee (Peyman Moaadi from A Separation) and begins to question her loyalties. Furthermore, the film succeeds following in a grand tradition of cinema that doesn’t necessarily expose the folly of war, yet rather the more specific folly of sending young, still red-in-the-cheek soldiers into a war zone. While there are no battlefields with gunfights and landmines in this film, this war zone is one filled with confrontation, the spoken word, and even “shit cocktails”. These new recruits are coming face to face with the people they have been told are villains and enemies of America, but without any sort of life experience to properly judge what is good or evil outside of indoctrinated buzz speeches about freedom and liberty.
Stewart’s finest moment comes when she explains to her friend that she’s never even been out of the country let alone grown enough to form herself into a person with individual feelings, emotions, and ambitions. When she fights off a superior officer’s attempted rape she finds herself at odds not only with her job for the first time, but also America, and Sattler’s really quite sublimely detailed film explores how it won’t be her last. There are moments where the film gets sloppy and it’s hardly a subtle rendering of the topic, but it’s an important subject and one that merits to be told from the fresh perspective of a modern-day female soldier. The conversing between Stewart and Moaadi is particularly riveting, the actors’ own different worlds creating a spark that they then fold into their characters. Camp X-Ray may be dry to many viewers, but I found its distilled anger refreshing and the performances especially make it worth watching.