How often does a film come along in which what the audience expects and wants is indistinguishable from the dark zones of a character’s subconscious? As moviegoers, we invest ourselves in a film, giving it our attention and ability to put two and two together, noting who said what to whom, who gave a suspicious look, and which close-ups seemed out of place in expectation of a payoff. Alice Winocour’s sustained suspense piece Disorder skillfully toys with such audience involvement, indulging viewers’ inner voyeur and giving them one hint of vague threat after another—a conversation, a newscast, a car that seems to be following—until they’re just itching for something really, really bad to happen.
Winocour delays or denies confirmation and satisfaction, merging the viewer’s gaze with the thousand-yard stare of Vincent Loreau (Matthias Schoenaerts), an Afghanistan veteran, built like a brick shit house, who’s working as a bodyguard on the French Riviera. This beefcake of few words never looks anyone straight in the eye or lets on what he’s thinking. The trick of Disorder is that it plays right to the audience’s suspicions and desires, subverting them to replicate the danger-sense symptoms of Vincent’s PTSD and to mirror his attraction to his client, Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of mysterious international financier Imad Whalid (spy novelist Percy Kemp).
To that end, Disorder uses a crafty ambient sound mix of differently pitched noise tones and throbbing whomp-whomp-whomps and a snooping camera that follows from behind or fixes on security monitors; both are effective enough that it isn’t immediately apparent that neither is entirely subjective. Vincent, a cryptically loyal watchdog, remains remote, even as the audience is given everything it needs to start imagining the worst: intimations of conspiracy, references to arms in the Middle East, suspicious behavior by local cops. Some of these might be called red herrings, if the whole point of Disorder weren’t to get the viewer to anticipate a villain to finally emerge from the shadows—and to keep anticipating after one finally does, very literally.
Disorder’s extreme interiority is reflected in the original title, Maryland, the name of the Whalids’ gated villa, where Vincent first arrives as part of a security team of French army veterans hired for a party and stays on after being offered 3,000 euros to watch Jessie and her son for a week while the husband is away on unspecified business. The emphasis is on threatened space and incursion, even on the soundtrack. (The score, by French tech house star Gesaffelstein, blends seamlessly with the ominous sound design, but Winocour also makes inspired, disruptive use of tracks by Azealia Banks and Major Lazer.) The party sequence, which runs about 15 minutes, shows early on how Winocour can turn non-events like a guest not being on the guest list or Vincent being asked to fetch some ice into points of tension.
By the time Vincent’s childhood buddy, Denis (Paul Hamy), shows up to help after a break-in and attempted kidnapping, even his affable presence comes across as a potential threat. Given that he openly flirts with Jessie, one might say that what Denis is threatening is the makeshift homestead Vincent has created at Maryland—which increasingly resembles a dilapidated plantation straight out of Southern gothic—with the woman he’s protecting. Winocour even dangles the possibility of a fairy tale ending. But how much of that is projection?
A lesser movie might use its third act to fulfill anticipations, tastelessly turning Vincent’s alienation and trauma into gifts. Disorder manages to deliver on the ski-masked bogeymen (as well as the disquieting violence that comes with fending them off) while still thwarting any chance of closure, answering almost none of the questions it’s raised. In the murky, dissatisfying coda, Winocour closes the door of Maryland in the audience’s face—an ending that one can’t help but admire and be deeply frustrated by.