Left alone without sensory inputs, it takes a mere 15 minutes for the human brain to begin hallucinating. Within our over-active minds, a lack of stimulus creates a mental vacuum we rush to fill. How, then, is life lived with this vacuum omnipresent?
In Alice Winocour’s French-language thriller “Disorder” (“Maryland” en francais), a former solider named Vincent (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) is hired by a wealthy businessman to provide security for a party held at his Riviera estate, a palatial gated manor called “Maryland.” Despite the ostensibly light atmosphere, Vincent’s vigilance intermingles with his combat senses to create – however justified - a vicious sensation of danger. The audience is drawn into his mental convulsions through some superb camera work and a brilliant score by Belgian DJ Gesaffelstein.
Midway through the party, the appearance of an unsavory guest sends Vincent into overdrive. His instincts to follow the guest (who eventually assaults Vincent’s employer) attracts the attention of the businessman, who asks Vincent to stay and protect his wife Jessie (played by the stunning Diane Kruger) and their child while he unexpectedly leaves to travel. The assault, the assignment, the abruptness of it all: it is fodder for the darkness within Vincent’s mind.
Vincent’s episodes – the muted, techno-driven indulgences of fear – continue, only now, the stakes are higher. When Jessie demands a trip to the beach, Vincent chauffeurs the family only to be forced into the passenger seat by Jessie after speeding through packed traffic because he sensed a pursuer. While past paranoid episodes only put Vincent at risk, his aggressive driving could have killed Jessie and her child – all because of an unnamed threat that Vincent (and, thanks to Winocour’s camera work, the audience) feel must be real.
One of the movie’s most brilliant scenes follows, as a frayed Vincent sits removed from the beach-going family, both their protector and their potential greatest danger. There’s no dramatic outburst from the stoic Vincent. He is a golem, gripped by the panic inside his head.
His is a slow burn.
Then, as the group departs the beach, the threat becomes instantly, impossibly real. Glass shatters. Ears ring. Disorder reigns. A kidnapping attempt is made on Jessie, and Vincent’s battle-hardened, paranoia-sharpened reflexes kick into gear. Vincent dispatches the attackers, but is wounded in the process.
Jessie, while thankful, is visibly distraught at Vincent’s ruthless efficacy. Despite his pleadings to seek police protection, Jessie demands that the party stay at Maryland.
His paranoia vindicated, Vincent calls in back-up in the form of his old friend Denis (Paul Hamy) to both defend the family and soothe the rift between him and Jessie. A downpour that night obscures Maryland’s security cameras, and while the three adults try their best to unwind, Vincent’s paranoia – stoked by the knowledge his fears are real – keeps him restless. During one of the film’s rare light moments (a kitchen scene where Vincent’s feeling of removal ever-so-slightly diminishes), Maryland loses power.
Just like that, the darkness returns. Glass shatters. Alarms sound. Footsteps pound.
What follows is some of the tensest cinema I’ve ever seen. The dark house, amplified by a potent blend of Vincent’s soldiering instincts and intense paranoia, becomes an environment dominated by cat-and-mouse anxiety. Here, Gesaffelstein’s score and Wincour’s camera again carry the day. The result is thrilling, disturbing, and absolutely incredible.
Vincent successfully dispatches the intruders, saves the family, and even rescues Denis from the brink of death. Despite his heroics, Maryland is littered with the effects of his paranoia-charged brutality. The thankful Jessie, happening upon the results of the violence that saved her life, looks at Vincent with graciousness and fear. The scene fades to black.
While the movie ends with Vincent and Jessie embracing, the brilliance of this film is in the jagged edges of their relationship, brought menacingly to life through intimate cinematography and a pulsing, lurching techno score. The audience is brought into Vincent, made to feel as he feels as events unfold before him.
This invitation into the human mind is made more jarring by Vincent’s crippling paranoia. After all, projecting onto a relatable character is as Hollywood cliche as a TMZ tour. Here, there’s no projection, and for many, there’s certainly no relatability. The result feels unlike anything else I’ve seen. It’s captivating, intense, and wholly welcome – if film is meant as an experience, why not truly experience it?
The main thing preventing me from raving about “Disorder” is its sense of pacing. I kid you not, to enjoy this movie, you must forfeit 45 minutes of your life to struggle through the introduction. Then, with nearly an hour gone by, prepare yourself to shrug through a series of dubious and unbelievable character choices that conveniently deliver tempo when the action on screen calls for it.
For example: why does Jessie insist on going to the beach if her husband hired her a bodyguard? Does she not think anything of the armed stranger now sharing her address? Speaking of her address, why does she insist on staying at Maryland after the kidnapping attempt? Even a trite “my husband told me not to trust the police” would have disdainfully sufficed.
Instead, we are offered nothing, and the disdain – just like Vincent’s episodes – multiplies in its dreadful isolation.
Yet, this is secondary to what “Disorder” truly has to offer: a visceral, thrilling “show don’t tell” style of character development that hurls you into the abyss, your bungee just long enough to touch the bottom, before yanking you out again. If you come into “Disorder” expecting an action movie, thriller, or traditional art piece, expect to leave disappointed. Yet, approach the film with empathy, and Winocour’s psychological thriller will prove deeply rewarding.