Review: Matthias Schoenaerts brings ferocious order to Alice Winocour’s ‘Disorder’
The title of “Disorder” refers to a nasty case of PTSD plaguing a French soldier named Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), who has just returned home from his latest and likely final tour of duty in Afghanistan. Diagnosed with persistent hearing problems and clearly still inhabiting a psychological war zone if not a physical one, Vincent tries to ward off ennui and despair by taking a private security job in the South of France, where he is tasked with protecting rich Lebanese businessman Whalid (Percy Kemp) and his family during a party at their gated estate.
But on a subtler level, “Disorder” might also be an apt description of the structural confusion at the heart of this intriguing thriller from French writer-director Alice Winocour, who works in a jagged, restless filmmaking style that favors sensory immersion over dramatic clarity. Then again, the title might be a reference to a world tilting into moral and political chaos, as signaled here by various TV news stations piping in grim reports of violence abroad: another mass shooting in the U.S., a fresh atrocity perpetrated by the Islamic State.
France has been consistently and increasingly at the forefront of those depressing headlines, and Winocour’s film feels all the more prescient for it: First screened at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, it arrives in American theaters just a month after the Bastille Day attacks in Nice, not far from where its story is set. But the alarming recent spikes in domestic and foreign terrorism are not the chief concern of this slow-burning character study, which instead poses the intriguing question of whether a man can truly be called paranoid or delusional if some of his worst instincts are proven correct.
Nearly a full hour elapses before anything concrete happens, and until it does — in a genuinely tense, alarming sequence — Winocour is content to observe Vincent as he simply goes about his job. The experience of armed combat has trained him to see danger and menace behind every corner, and “Disorder” achieves a pointed, unsettling ambiguity as Vincent — listening in on suggestive conversations and occasionally barging in when he’s not wanted — gradually pieces together what he thinks is the truth about Whalid’s shady recent activities.
What he discovers could have lethal consequences for Whalid’s beautiful German wife, Jessie (Diane Kruger), and their young son, Ali (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant), who wind up under Vincent’s sole protection when Whalid abruptly leaves on an unspecified business trip. Showing a slick set of genre chops that were in no way suggested by her first feature, the 19th-century costume drama “Augustine,” Winocour uses every resource at her disposal — intimate, jagged camerawork, ominously droning music and a marvelously detailed sound design — to evoke Vincent’s sharp yet stunted powers of perception, all but welding his internal circuitry to our own.
The trouble is that, even as she burrows deep into her protagonist’s psyche, the director (who wrote the script with Jean-Stephane Bron) frequently crosses the line between deliberate ambiguity and aimless confusion. For all Winocour’s obvious skill behind the camera, too much of “Disorder” bogs down in ill-defined motivations and credulity-straining plot turns. Jessie and Vincent have a tense, frosty rapport leavened by stray glimmers of romantic attraction, but nothing here is sustained long enough to accrue the desired emotional force.
Still, movies have been made for infinitely worse reasons than the chance to watch Schoenaerts brood for an hour-and-a-half. His hulking, tattooed frame dominating nearly every scene, the Belgian-born, Hollywood-friendly actor makes a welcome return to the taciturn tough-guy register he established in the European art-house thrillers “Bullhead” and “Rust and Bone,” seething and sulking with a ferocity that rewards the viewer’s close attention. “Disorder” may ultimately fall victim to its own narrative ambivalence, but acting this magnetic achieves a clarity all its own.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theater, Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.