Alice Winocour’s 'Disorder' is a brilliant exercise in tension and release

Matthias Schoenaert in his definitive performance to date

Matthias Schoenaert in his definitive performance to date Courtesy of IFC Films

Everything you need to know about wounded masculinity can be seen in Matthias Schoenaerts’ face.

This first became apparent in Bullhead, the Oscar-nominated drama from the actor’s native Belgium, and has continued in films like Rust and Bone, The Drop, and now Disorder. Schoenaerts is the Tom Hardy of Continental Europe, a vulnerable action star in search of an actual action franchise. Absent a Belgian 007 or Jason Bourne, his scattered body of work more than suffices.

In his definitive performance to date, Schoenaerts stars as a PTSD-racked mercenary named Vincent who’s deemed unfit to return to the fray. Lacking any better options, he tries his hand at private security. There are vague, passing allusions to missions in Malta and elsewhere. His thousand-yard stare eventually focuses on Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of his wealthy employer and virtually a single mother to her and her away-on-business husband’s son.

Disorder is known abroad by its original title of Maryland, the name of the estate Vincent is tasked with protecting. Director Alice Winocour’s camera makes its way through the large, stately grounds like a slow-burning fuse. Often seen in shadow or cool, morning-blue light, it’s a sealed-off arena that should have been a safe haven.

Vincent knows little about the man paying him good money to protect his family while he’s abroad, which sets off all his internal alarms. But recent events — a failed physical, his friend’s growing concern for his well-being — have him questioning whether his own instincts are the signal or the noise.

Gesaffelstein’s synth score floats between soundtrack and sound design, with some passages resembling trance beats and others closer to onscreen noise. His work combines with Winocour’s tight focus on her rattled hero to put us in Vincent’s fractured headspace. Within the span of a single scene, the composer’s semi-ambient score might have you nodding your head and then looking over your shoulder once the faint ringing in your ear sets in.

Every abrupt noise is a reminder of the battlefield for Vincent, each silence a void to fill with nervous energy. He’s visibly uncomfortable among his new hosts’ black-tie party guests but derives comfort from their German Shepherd — familiar signifiers of movie PTSD all, rendered tense and almost sensual by Winocour.

Everyday moments aren’t everyday for Vincent. Events are slowed down, sounds are amplified, and his paranoia is eventually fulfilled: Vincent’s well-off boss isn’t the most law-abiding of citizens, and those who mean the arms dealer harm are apparently happy to settle for harming his wife and child instead. This, coupled with an ineffectual (if not complicit) police force, puts our man on the front line when the house is invaded late one night.

Winocour, who deserves to be at the helm of a sleek spy franchise as much as her star, works with 90 percent tension, 10 percent release — the ideal ratio for a low-key thriller in which mood trumps muscle. The co-writer/director subverts genre expectations for so long that, by the time she delivers on them — home intruders in ski masks, quick eruptions of bloody violence — not a moment feels unearned or out of place.

Disorder keeps the particulars pleasingly vague, though we never lose the narrative thread. Ever restrained, Winocour manages to give us just enough of what we want to leave us wishing for more as the credits roll on her brief, arresting final scene.

Directed by Alice Winocour
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema