Ben Kingsley has spoken many words of wisdom in his lifetime, few more insightful than when he told the Observer earlier this summer that, when a male actor is directed by a woman, he “is almost given permission to be vulnerable.” In Alice Winocour’s new feature, Disorder, which lays bare the emotional scars of PTSD, actor Matthias Schoenaerts is a case in point as he delivers a complex performance — sometimes violent, sometimes disorienting and, yes, even sexy — as a man unlike any action hero in recent memory. While others’ Achilles’ heels are hidden until the third act, Schoenaerts, as reluctantly retired soldier Vincent, is a raw nerve from the outset.
Vincent’s eyes dart nervously from left to right as he jogs along in fatigues with the rest of his troop. A heart-thumping soundtrack à la John Carpenter (but really from techno artist Gesaffelstein) builds intensity until the subtle beep of a hearing test ekes its way through the cacophony. Now in a quiet room, Vincent struggles to identify the direction of the beeps. Are they coming from the right or the left? The sounds signal danger to him, and as the story progresses, the danger could truly be anywhere, an anxiety evoked masterfully by Winocour’s tight focus on her shell-shocked protagonist.
Even at a seemingly banal party where Vincent gigs as security, Winocour portrays him in slo-mo surveilling mode, extreme close-ups on his agitated eyes, finding danger everywhere; the purest moment of peace and the only time he smiles is when he’s petting the family’s dog. The music mirrors his distress, with the party guests’ surrounding conversations layered into the sound design but muted to a level at which only a few words can be discerned, while background noise of glasses toasting and birds chirping is turned up in the mix — a technique that’s used artfully throughout the film. In one tense scene on a beach, Vincent’s scanning cliffs for would-be assassins, and all sounds drone into one indecipherable mass, even as the tiny pebbles a boy is throwing drop like a bomb. We’re so close to Vincent that it’s not immediately apparent if he/we are just losing it, or if he’s really a superstar security expert.
Another asset to Winocour’s treatment of the action genre: her female gaze on the feminine form. When Vincent glimpses Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a businessman whose family he's been hired to protect, he keeps his distance — and so does the audience, through Winocour’s wide lens, which resists the mundane urge to zoom in on the contour of her breasts and instead focuses on the pangs of feeling aroused in Vincent’s expressive face. He’s asked to stay on in the household for the weekend, guarding Jessie and her young, silent son, Ali (Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant), but it’s difficult to fathom how he’ll make it through the night without snapping.
It’s in the inevitable fight scenes that Winocour really showcases her talent for restraint, opting for a tight, suffocating framing of simple but startlingly brutal sequences made all the more effective by her attention to an atmosphere that accretes steadily as Vincent approaches his breaking point. She elevates the action hero beyond his physical assets, drilling through his psyche to offer a rare and welcome lens into a type of man usually reduced to stoicism or sulking, hiding behind a rubber mask.