The power fantasies inherent in the modern action-thriller are pretty creepy, when you think about it. Films like Taken invite you to step into the shoes of a roided-out military professional who gets to utilize their particular sets of skills to protect the innocent (to excessive, violent effect). Mustang co-writer Alice Winocour’s Disorder turns that concept on its head, treating a Taken-esque Eurothriller with the psychological heft of a character study.
The plot is simple enough: Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD, is tasked to play bodyguard to Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a rich Lebanese businessman, and her child while he’s away on business. All he has to do is stay in the guest room of their opulent villa on the French Riviera, drive them to the beach, and so on. The assignment seems simple enough, but Vincent’s combat awareness keeps him unnervingly on his toes at all times, which creates a distinct tension between him and his vulnerable charges. After an unexpected assault by masked men is narrowly thwarted by Vincent, he becomes even more fiercely dedicated to her protection.
The nature of the danger Vincent must thwart is left frustratingly vague, but Winocour’s primary focus is actually the psychological makeup of Disorder’s impressively compelling protagonist. Imagine Liam Neeson’s action movie characters treated with the same level of subjectivity as Travis Bickle, and you come close to understanding the director’s elegant approach to her protagonist. Schoenaerts pulls an incredible performance out of a stony, resolute face, offering the portrait of a man who, as his friend/fellow soldier Denis (Paul Hamy) puts it, “in his mind, [is] still over there.” While Vincent’s intentions are noble – the protection of his charges – Winocour smartly muddies the waters with a few dashes of sexual frustration, voyeurism and unnecessarily violent outbursts. Disorder sympathizes with its protagonist, but understands and highlights his flaws.
By its nature as a character study, the other characters of Disorder are given short shrift, but that only serves to aid our perception of Vincent’s inability to relate to and engage in civilian society. His strained but sexually-longing interactions with Jessie are innately compelling, the film leaving her knowledge of her husband’s dealings deliberately ambiguous. Vincent’s old war buddy Denis, meanwhile, offers a contrast to our lead’s stoic self-flagellation, which is both a comfort and a threat. It’s telling that, in a film studded with panicked glances over shoulders and visceral, brutal fistfights, it’s an awkwardly exhibitionistic flirtation in the kitchen that offers the film’s tensest moment.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the film is its pacing, which isn’t even a bad thing. The film prefers to ramp up tension to almost unbearable levels rather than desensitize with endless action scenes, challenging expectations of the typical action movie beats. Much like Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, the entire point of Disorder seems to be that a constant state of combat readiness is exhausting and psychologically draining; Vincent visibly shares the audience’s desperate desire for the villains to show themselves so he can get to work. Schoenaerts’ physicality is a wrecking ball of potential energy, Winocour smartly focusing heavily on close-ups of Vincent’s face so all can see the torment of just waiting for something to happen. While the glacial pacing can be frustrating at times, it’s hard to fault the film for not copping out on this deliberate subversion of conventions.
Disorder doesn’t completely accomplish what it sets out to do – the ending is somewhat muddied and abrupt, for instance, and the film veers too much into intentional false starts meant to upend action movie conventions. That said, the combination of Schoenaerts’ intensely brutish, sensitive performance and Winocour’s singular dedication to tension gives Disorder plenty to offer.