Disorder (aka Maryland)

France/Belgium (2015) Dir. Alice Winocour

When you can’t understand what is going on in your own head it is far harder for other people to understand you. Whilst I can’t – and daren’t – compare my Asperger’s to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) I can empathise with people who are fighting a battle inside their own head which is reflected in their behaviour.

Former soldier Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), recently returned from action in Afghanistan is discharged against his will due to suffering from PTSD. Needing work, Vincent takes a job as part of a security squad for wealthy Lebanese businessman Imad Whalid (Percy Kemp).

After displaying his credentials a lavish house party thrown by Whalid prior to going on a business trip, Vincent is left to guard Whalid’s wife Jessie (Diane Kruger) and their son Ali (Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant) at their villa Maryland in the French Riviera. Gradually Vincent begins to suspect the family is under threat but is it really all in his mind?

Commendably, French writer-director Alice Winocour avoids the temptation of portraying her damaged soldier as being a ticking time bomb prone to fits of anger and violent outbursts, his head rattled with recurring images of the horrors of the frontline and being plagued by apparitions or seeing visions of dangerous people in place of harmless ones. Instead the approach is one of subtlety and nuance.

By not going over the top the effects of the PTSD is told through the sleep-deprived eyes of Vincent and a masterly use of rhythmic sound and an appropriately pulsating musical soundtrack. Aside from the odd snapping awake from a (unseen) bad dream scenario Vincent’s possible delusions are cliché free. We don’t need to see inside his head, the simple act of squeezing his eyes tightly shut says more than enough.

This gives Winocour licence to indulge her inner Hitchcock in mimicking his little motifs for creating tension, accompanied by an ominous and repetitive techno beat gathering momentum. In one scene set on a beachfront, the camera darts around to focus on a number of potentially suspects people, but are they really a threat, since their actions are as innocuous as they are suspicious?

Another Hitchcock trick is also given the homage treatment when a pursuing vehicle slips into view through the *ahem* rear window while Vincent tries to engage Jessie in conversation by way of distraction. Again it might be nothing but Vincent’s instincts convince him otherwise – and prove him correct.

So far, so exciting – except that it isn’t all that exciting. The film suffers from a slow pace, as if the intent is lull the viewer into a false sense of security, perhaps to replicate the journey Jessie and Vincent are about to go on. Prior to this we get an almost clinical depiction of the duties fulfilled by the security team at the house party, in which nothing of any note aside from Vincent walking in on a private meeting occurs.

It’s almost 40 minutes into this 98-minute film before we are properly introduced to Jessie, seen previously in a slinky slow motion lifted from a pop video shot, before the real story actually begins. Unfortunately after this there is little actual development per se insofar as surprises, twists, even helpful exposition as to why Jessie and Ali might be in trouble.

Certainly, things are hinted but they are perfunctory and just functional enough to move to the next stage, albeit only to be forgotten about moments after. Naturally the relationship follows the well-worn path of spoiled wife taking the hired goon for granted only to warm to him after saving her bacon, but to her credit Winocour keeps these slowly festering feelings at a distance, sparing us from that particular convention.

Action sequences are few and usually terse affairs, designed to puncture the silence and temporarily lift the energy level above moribund. They are not overly violent but are well staged and physically intense. The way they occur from nowhere genuinely rocks the quiet mood preceding it and acts as an electric shock, and just as quickly as they arrive they are gone again.

While Vincent is posited as a bit of a one-man fighting machine, he at least is shown to be vulnerable and certainly isn’t your usual testosterone tough guy who has to flex his muscles in that heroic alpha male manner. We see him as a man fighting for survival, using his training and instincts to fulfil his duty to protecting Jessie, all the while trying to make sense of the situation which is clouded by his own fragile emotions.

Having tried his hand at being a romantic lead, Matthias Schoenaerts returns to the sort of damaged meathead role he made his name with in films such as Bullhead and Rust And Bone. An imposing figure with a kind face, this aids him in presenting us with a believably conflicted character about whom we want to know more and to see him beat his condition.

Diane Kruger gives us a slightly different kept woman in Jessie in that she appears to have a genuinely unaffected side to her to the one displayed in the presence of her rich husband. She’s not quite a gold digger but she isn’t going to turn down this luxury life style either if she doesn’t have to, hence the tacit and downplayed frisson that develops between her and Vincent.

Winocour’s direction is commendable and she knows how to create tension and unrest through atmosphere without signposting jump scares. But the script falls short by being unclear as to whether it is a psychological study of PTSD or a taut crime thriller. If it is both, the blending of the two ideas doesn’t feel entirely natural.

Big on good intentions with its initial fertile premise but hampered in the final execution with its awkward pacing and genre confusion, Disorder is fine for what it is – ambiguous ending notwithstanding – but should have given us more.