It would have been a bummer if a woman with a large hat had been seated in front of me at the IFFBoston screening of Disorder. I regrettably do not speak French (working on it!) and so Disorder‘s English subtitles are pretty vital to the enjoyment of the film. If a lady with a large hat, perhaps inspired to wear such a thing by The Great Train Robbery or that episode of Sesame Street, were to get comfy in the seat in front of me, there’s a chance that those subtitles might have been obscured. I’ve yet to develop social courage or an extendable giraffelike neck (working on it!) and so, yeah, that would have been a bummer.
But, actually, no: Disorder would have been every bit as powerful without the words. Plot-wise there’s nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, and in fact the synopsis runs the risk of sounding heavily clichéd when it’s written down on paper. Vincent, a French soldier fresh back from Afghanistan, has taken a job at a private security company and been tasked with protecting the beautiful wife of the shady rich magnate. His PTSD interferes with this, but when the beautiful wife becomes a target it’s up to Vincent to save her. This admittedly sounds uninspired, but thankfully Disorder is crafted with care and creativity such that synopsis takes a backseat to style.
Central to this success is Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead, Far from the Madding Crowd) who is well on his way to making a career out of brutish-looking tough guys with sympathetic sensitivities. In Disorder Schoenaerts does what he does in a few of his other films: sweat, brood, scowl, remove shirt, patch wound, brood again, kick ass, rinse, repeat; still, in Disorder, his character has both the implied backstory and the moody environment in which to make these familiar steps seem like something other than familiar steps. The Belgian actor clearly has the stuff to be a leading man, putting forth solid performances in Bullhead and Rust and Bone with Marion Cotillard, although to this point his stateside exposure has mostly been limited to thankless supporting roles in stuff like The Drop.
One expects that to change within the year. Sadly, it will change because Schoenaerts will be playing Clark to Casey Affleck’s Lewis in the long-anticipated Lewis & Clark miniseries, expected to air on HBO this year; it should change because of stuff like Disorder, which Schoenaerts and writer/director Alice Winocour pull out of the abyssal trap of clichédom and turn into a genuine film.
It’s not that the dialogue is entirely unnecessary, and we do learn some important things about Vincent through his limited conversations with his co-bodyguards and with Diane Kruger’s Jessie. Notably, none of this is exposition-level dialogue, itself a welcome breath of fresh air in the guy-returns-from-war genre. The best parts of American Sniper are those that display the effects of PTSD without doing so explicitly; likewise, a major reason why The Deer Hunter is such a masterpiece is because Michael’s pre- and postwar selves are so subtly juxtaposed. Here, one of the best moments comes when one of the bodyguards asks Vincent over the radio to describe what Jessie looks like. Vincent’s detailed response about her hair and the flowers on her dress tells more about his astuteness (or what he chooses to pay attention to) than a million conversations about his fractured state of mind.
Still, that state of mind is best conveyed without any words at all. We’re rarely given direct insight into what Vincent experiences, no shaky POV shots or woozy editing to convey a sense of disorientation. That can certainly be done in a mature way (see Chuck’s spells throughout Better Call Saul) but in Disorder it’s far more interesting to have the camera trained on Vincent as he traverses his PTSD. The music builds ominously as Vincent perks up at the mere notion of danger, barreling over to the treeline in search of a suspicious evildoer. He’s blinking the sweat from his eyes, breathing heavily, the music pulsing as he gazes up into the dunes…and then he blinks and the music stops. We technically have no idea what he was just going through, but we know that it wasn’t fun. We know it wasn’t reality, because reality is where Vincent arrived when he blinked and the music stopped. Just prior to that he was somewhere else entirely.
Winocour deserves final mention in this regard, for her direction complements Schoenaerts’ intensity well. The bursts of action are spaced far apart but filmed with inventiveness, particularly the sudden raid on the car by two masked assailants; Vincent’s slides into states of disorder are signaled with subtlety by music, by a close-up push-in, by a tracking shot that works towards climax but ultimately leads to nowhere. Winocour’s film isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but it’s much more than just a serviceable actioner or a French spin on the home invasion genre. It’s probably not for everyone. A few people at the IFFBoston screening seemed to be nodding off from time to time. But Ladies in Big Hats be damned: I enjoyed Disorder, and it spoke to me in a language I didn’t need subtitles to understand.