“Maryland” is the original title of “Disorder,” the second feature by Parisian writer-director Alice Winocour, and while not one minute of it takes place in the American state of the same name, it’s a film that hints at bright transatlantic possibilities for its helmer. A fine-cut tension exercise that eventually ignites into a full-blown home-invasion thriller, “Disorder” reps about the last step one might have expected Winocour to take after debuting with 2012’s porcelain-textured costumer “Augustine.” It’s a sharp, slinky change of pace, however, given human backbone by Matthias Schoenaerts’ tightly wound performance as a PTSD-afflicted ex-soldier hired to protect Diane Kruger’s corporate trophy wife. Schoenaerts’ current international ubiquity lends added commercial appeal to a genre pic that already doesn’t want for exportable elements; arthouse distribs should form an orderly (or disorderly) queue.
For Belgian thesp Schoenaerts, now coming off a triple-shot of English-lingo period romances — “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Suite francaise” and “A Little Chaos” — “Disorder” marks a crackling return to the sensitive-thug persona with which he made his name in “Bullhead” and “Rust and Bone.” Hulkingly built, buzz-cut and stamped with stark tattoos, he cuts a more baleful figure than the average buffed-up leading man, which suits Winocour’s purposes just fine: As Vincent, an Afghanistan veteran prone to volatile paranoid episodes, he’s a hero who nonetheless seems capable of turning on his charges (and, by extension, the audience) at any given moment. Post-traumatic stress disorder has been a heavily worked character condition in recent cinema, but Schoenaerts enacts it with bracing spareness, his nerve ends prickling through even in benign domestic exchanges.
Vincent, a French Special Forces soldier, is freshly out of action at the film’s outset, while a medical inspection suggests that his leave from the military may well be permanent. Winocour’s no-fat script, written with Jean-Stephane Bron, offers nary a hint of his pre-army life or personality. One brief but resonant shot shows him sitting in his former bedroom in his mother’s house, now an absurdly small, boyish space for such a man — it’s an image that bespeaks a crucially skipped stage of adulthood.
Along with a number of fellow ex-servicemen, Vincent secures a temporary assignment as a security guard at the plush coastal estate — the eponymous Maryland — of Whalid (Percy Kemp), an obscenely wealthy Lebanese businessman. At a glitzy party hosted by Whalid for a high-powered selection of moguls and politicos, Vincent first catches sight of his employer’s glamorous German wife, Jessie (Kruger), and picks up on tight-jawed marital friction between the two. That same night, he also accidentally eavesdrops on behind-closed-doors dealings, concluding that Whalid is neck-deep in illegal arms trading. Shortly afterward, he’s hired again to protect Jessie and the couple’s preteen son, Ali (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant), while Whalid is abroad on a shady business trip.
Jessie, seemingly unaware of her husband’s criminal activities, is initially vexed by Vincent’s presence, whose recent history of paranoia doesn’t make him the most reassuring of guardians. Vincent perceives threat at every turn, while Winocour artfully draws out the ambiguity of whether or not Jessie has genuine cause for concern — or whether her jumpy new bodyguard, to whom she feels an inevitably burgeoning attraction, is the most unpredictable intruder in her house.
When the answer comes, it’s with a cold-blooded bang. After an hour of slow-creep psychological teasing — affording the viewer ample time to explore Maryland’s multiple marble-tiled corridors together with our impassive protagonist — Winocour hurtles into a violent, heart-in-mouth third act rife with look-behind-you peril. It’s a silly but robustly effective escalation of the latent suspense already conjured in the impressive, snakily extended party sequence. Winocour has the gift of instilling fear at a range of tempos; it would not be a surprise if genre-inclined producers in English-speaking territories took notice.
Given fewer notes to play than her redoubtable co-star, Kruger nonetheless registers in angularly elusive fashion as an intelligent woman suspended in a cosseted reality curated entirely by menfolk. Winocour doesn’t let this thriller escape without a wily degree of feminist subtext, though interjections of news footage concerning security threats to women in Islamic State territories draw the cultural parallels with slightly too heavy a hand.
A restless, complex soundscape is the third star of “Disorder.” Flipping bluntly between disquieting silence and feverishly layered metallic chatter, the tonal contrasts of Gwennole Le Borgne’s sound editing take auds in and out of Vincent’s head with evocative economy, abetted by the skittering electronic pulse of the score by French techno DJ Gesaffelstein. Georges Lechaptois’ snooping, cool-hued cinematography is a valuable asset to proceedings, and Samuel Deshors’ excellent production design gives the suspense sequences a firm geometry, while perceptively serving the contemporary upstairs-downstairs aspect of the narrative.