Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a killing machine who's starting to malfunction. During an exercise with fellow Special Forces soldiers on tour in Afghanistan, his nose begins to bleed profusely because of intense pounding from audio frequencies. Since the residual effects of combat and PTSD aren't limited to war zones, similar sonic booms continue after Vincent is placed on temporary leave back in France. No welcome signs await his return, only isolation, frustration and a dwindling sense of purpose. Is this what it looks like to suffocate under the weight of your own skill set?
Alice Winocour's Disorder, a muscular and efficient thriller that sidesteps psychology for stylish impulse, clings to Vincent's perspective like a wet t-shirt. Being this close means seeing and hearing the world like a traumatized solider would. Rooms that appear safe are defined by blind spots, still in need of concise and methodical clearing. Thudding bass lines create a concussion-like normalcy of paranoia, aggression and overreaction. Fittingly, these exact traits aid him after taking a side job protecting a corrupt international businessman.
Set mostly at a lavish mansion estate, the film builds pressure from each passing frame. During one swanky cocktail party attended by various political luminaries and socialites, Vincent watches his employer's wife Jessie (Diane Kruger) and young son Ali (Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant) like a hawk. It's never completely clear if his intense observation stems from a relentless desire to protect, or if ulterior motives are at play. Winocour keeps Vincent a cypher, even when his actions are predicated on something more than instinct.
As tension mounts, seemingly harmless ambient sounds carry the threat of intrusion and every innocuous character could be a potential kidnapper. Vincent captures fragments of confidential and angry conversations regarding possible criminal activity and he seems ready to interject at any time. Winocour makes the layered sound design a character unto itself, shaping an oppressive mood from deviations in tone and volume. Through it all Vincent seems obsessed by the present moment in order to avoid grappling with the past or future.
Disorder is so lean and confident it feels alien in comparison to the bloated schlock modern Hollywood would categorize as "suspenseful." Winocour refuses to deal in absolutes, pumping newfound danger through the veins of a tired genre set-up. The film eventually bends so tight from anticipation that it must explode, as witnessed during a stunningly quick assault that occurs inside Jessie's car.
Winocour's dazzling film ends with an extended set piece that unfolds like a jagged-edge game of cat and mouse. Here, the idea of home no longer exists, or perhaps it never did in the first place, especially for a character like Vincent who would die the second he stops moving or suspecting. His true shark-like nature eventually gets an unsuspecting audience. After previously commenting that she could imagine Vincent and his hulking physique "hunting bears" in the wild, Jessie witnesses the real thing in the confines of her own living room.
Opening on Friday, Sept. 2, at the Digital Gym Cinema, Disorder strategically dismantles patterns of class division cementing Vincent as a state-sanctioned assassin and Jessie as someone shielded by wealth and entitlement. While politics and emotions are kept mostly on the fringes, it understands how both seamlessly mold a tormented psyche. Some people are just better than others at hiding it.
Both Schoenaerts and Kruger impart their characters with the perfect mixture of vulnerability and stubbornness. In times of crisis, they become fused together by compulsion instead of language—somehow they avoid proper introductions until very late. Disorder is entirely obsessed with ambiguous (and primal) forms of communication, unspoken gestures and observations that make for great visceral cinema. Reading between the lines hasn't been this fun in a long time.