Let's get this out of the way now: Kristen Stewart is fine in Camp X-Ray, the tough-minded/soft-hearted drama that packs America's sweetheart off to Guantánamo Bay. The fact that such casting seems unlikely might be part of why she succeeds. Tasked with patrolling a cellblock of detainees for 12 hours at a time, Stewart's Private Cole is a newbie everyone assumes is in over her head. Stewart knuckles up her face, beating back all feeling but the blunt-edged boredom of the modern soldier, showing us a woman who is often playing a role herself: the prison guard who feels nothing.
She's best in the moments, in the film's middle, when Cole struggles to swallow back new and larger feelings than her ennui. Ali (the wonderful Peyman Moaadi), an English-speaking detainee originally from Germany, picks at her as she patrols his block: "Blondie," he says, "why you treat me like asshole?" He may on occasion throw his feces at her, but he also wants to talk about life, about books, about their common humanity, and Moaadi (so memorable in A Separation) deftly navigates Ali's tenderness and rage.
He's handsome enough, and she's played by Kristen Stewart, so an attraction proves inevitable. Outside the final scenes, first-time writer-director Peter Sattler keeps this mostly low-key despite his weakness for pedantry. Sattler never tells us what Ali or Cole did to get there, but he and his cast make certain we know that neither achieved what they had hoped for. But the final beat between them is so ridiculous -- and demonstrates such childish credulousness on the part of Cole -- that the same could be said of Sattler himself.