For decades, vehicles top-lined by Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger, and Statham have made action-thrillers a territory dominated by men, in front of and behind the camera. But something strange and elusively significant occurs when a female perspective refocuses the genre, as French filmmaker Alice Winocour dared with her sophomore effort, Disorder (previously known as Maryland when it made its Cannes debut).
Named for the post-traumatic stress disorder its protagonist suffers, Disorder follows an off-duty soldier through a security job that demands he guard the wife and child of an affluent businessman. Plagued by aural hallucinations and paranoia, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) sees threat in every harsh whisper, suspicion in every side-eye, and danger in every blindspot, leading viewers to wonder what’s the real risk on the posh estate.
Moved by the struggles of soldiers returning from the hostile areas of Afghanistan, the writer/director best known for co-writing the heralded coming-of-age drama Mustang penned Disorder with a unique strategy in mind for its storytelling. Rather than the fearless hero stereotype who slings one-liners and topples foes with a bright smile, the daring auteur created Vincent as a largely silent and mostly grim figure, who moves through his everyday life with an exhausting alertness. Schoenaerts shoulders the weight of the drama with an eerie aplomb. But what’s won Disorder the most praise is Winocour’s execution, which employs claustrophobic cinematography and a chilling sound design to subsume the audience into Vincent’s traumatized POV.
As Vincent strides around his client’s property, the unsteady handheld camerawork suggests action could pop off at any moment. Anxiety is seeded in suffocating close-ups of sneering strangers. Slo-motion amps up the tension, but the blows that would release it don’t come quick, leaving us jangling and, like Vincent, uncertain. The soundtrack is ridged with sounds of slicing metal, clanging bells, racing chords, and mysterious notes that spike your mind with the nagging question, “What was that?.” Each cues us into Vincent’s compromised state of mind.
But Disorder is more than a tautly tense thriller. At its core lies a distinctive and stirring romance. Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) co-stars as Jessie, the trophy wife potentially in need of protection. In a standard Hollywood scenario, she’d be sex-starved, lusting for male attention, popping out of skimpy glamor gear, and providing foolish distraction to Vincent. But Winocour offers a relationship with much more nuance, and no overt seduction at all. Vincent and Jessie have no major heart-to-heart scene, no tumble in the sheets or fade-to-black kiss. Their connection is furtive and unspoken, yet nonetheless compelling. A question of longing is posed in their shared glances and precious moments alone, but their situation bars it from ever being uttered, giving Disorder a sharp sophistication lacking in most modern thrillers.
Kicking us into act three, a glass-shattering moment abruptly changes the tone and stakes of Disorder. And for many critics, it’s the breaking point of where the tension gives way to convention, with waves of anonymous baddies and a home invasion finale. However, Winocour’s choice to lace no score through this final conflict is compelling, urging the audience to listen for lurkers along with Vincent. And moreover, the camerawork capturing her hero feels somehow freshly female. It’s not a matter of Female Gaze, inverting the objectifying sexual gaze onto a male subject. Rather, the so-close shots of a clearly spooked Vincent reflect a vulnerability that’s drummed out of Hollywood action, which instead slathers on smirks, sweat, and low-angle shots of god-like brawny bods. Winocour’s work makes Vincent fallible and fascinating, building to a conclusion that won’t leave you cheering, but pondering.
Disorder opens August 12th.