What happens when a dark piece of horror all the way through ends with a tunnel of light?
Maryland (also billed as Disorder). 2016. Directed by Alice Winocour. Screenplay by Winocour & Jean-Stéphane Bron.
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant, Percy Kemp, Victor Pontecorvo, Franck Torrecillas, Chems Eddine, Philippe Haddad, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, Rachid Hafassa, David Colombo, & Rabia Elatache. Dharamsala/Darius Films/Mars Films.
Rated PG. 98 minutes.
There have been plenty cracks, as of late, at tackling PTSD through cinema. Some good, some not so good. It’s all in the way you go about it. You can show many sides. Each person suffering with the disorder can experience it much differently, depending on the event which triggered the symptoms. Along comes Alice Winocour, writing alongside Jean-Stéphane Bron, giving us Maryland; a film that so deftly handles PTSD with suspense, tension, and a few good thrills.
All the elements are in place here to have made a proper thriller, filled by interesting interpersonal drama and a couple heady doses of action. First, there’s Matthias Schoenaerts, whose talents at doing more with his face, expressions, body language than many actors can manage to do with their entire repertoire. Second, Diane Kruger gives her character more weight than simply being a poorly written female character tossed in to give the plot a feminine angle. And finally you can’t deny Winocour’s talent as a director. Personally, I’ve not yet seen anything else she’s done so far. Shame, really. Because clearly she knows how to make magic on the screen. Not only is there a great look, Winocour combines the visual aesthetic with one impeccable aural feast, from sound design to the soundtrack itself by Gesaffelstein. Honestly it’s one of the better movies of its kind in the last few years. Like I said, the PTSD film has really become more of a thing again since the Invasion of Iraq, and everything soldiers have been mixed up in since. But Maryland offers up a look into that type of mind, one fractured deeply by the horror of war (and perhaps later the necessity for a life filled with violence). We don’t get all the typical moments you’d expect. Rather, Winocour shows us the genre we’re convinced is in front of our eyes, then makes it into something else more interesting.
One of the immediate elements of the scripts is the paranoia. A technique Winocour uses that we’re given often in a film that leans towards a psychological story is that for the better part of the whole runtime we’re right alongside, behind, near Vincent (Schoenaerts). Sometimes we follow behind him. Others we’re at mid-range, as he talks to others, interacts with Jessie (Kruger) and the various people at the Maryland estate. Further than any of that, Winocour uses the cinematography of Georges Lechaptois to draw us into the sometimes hallucinatory headspace of Vincent. We’re not always sure exactly when reality ends and the PTSD working overtime within Vincent’s poor head begins. In fact, the very final shot has such impact due to the fact we’re consistently drawn into a place where the reality we witness is undermined by Vincent and his penchant for hallucinating. While the major events of the plot are clearly real, that final shot begs to question exactly how unstable is Vincent, as well as whether he’ll ever be able to fully heal again. Or maybe it’s real. You can never be sure. Although my two cents? I think the final moment is a hallucination. Essentially, he retreats into that world inside his mind when he’s all alone. Aside from seeking out violence, or violent situations, because of his time in the war – who knows what happened to him over there – Vincent likely works in security still due to the fact he needs to be near people, he has to have noise to occupy his brain. You’ll notice that while Vincent does have a couple moments of intense stress, most of the party is a distraction to him. It’s only once he gets to a quieter, less populated area of the party does his paranoia get into overdrive. Interesting little distinction.
The music from Gesaffelstein pushes certain scenes to the limit of psychological suspense. A tension ratchets at times until you think either you or Vincent are about to burst. People will pass off the music as “derivative of ’80s synth-pop” (something I actually read online if you can believe that) when it’s just electronic excellence. Plus, as I said, the music then works in conjunction with the cinematography and Winocour’s directorial choices to make the mental state of Vincent a thoroughly visceral experience. That sequence at the beach? The heavy electronic notes ramble until Vincent’s able to calm himself. And that whole minute or so is an exercise in how to draw out a tense scene. This of course leads up to another wild moment, which confirms for sure if Vincent is seeing things or if it’s all real. Nevertheless, on numerous occasions the visual and aural elements of the film combine to make the action and the drama exciting in equal measures.
Schoenaerts is beyond a good actor. He has all the wonderful energy of a De Niro or a Pacino, a Hackman, a Hoffman (Dustin or Phillip Seymour), a Vincent Cassel or a Jean-Paul Belmondo, anybody you can think of really. He’s got the physicality to play any number of tough guy characters, already proving that in spades through his performance in my favourite film, Bullhead. However, he gets to show even more of his acting chops here (even though I still prefer that one). The way he paves a path into the world of Vincent, that inner paranoid inside the hulking exterior, is fascinating. His vulnerability is always present. He’s this big time security guard, and at the same time he has this gaping wound in his soul that comes out from time to time, piercing the outer shell of his military swagger, that built up, constructed masculinity. Again, as in the aforementioned performance, he taps into that side of masculinity, what it means to be a soldier in modern times/what it means to be a man, as well. It lifts the film up with how deep the performance goes, right to the last drop.
Likewise, Kruger does a pretty solid job, too. She plays a woman wrapped up in something that she doesn’t exactly understand. At first, she’s hesitant to treat Vincent with much more than awkward, casual conversation. Then, as events evolve and change her perception, she’s forced to rely on a man she does not know. Moreover, she has no idea of his real personality, the PTSD he deals with on a regular basis. So to watch her performance along with what we know, it makes for good excitement. Jessie isn’t a character just left helpless, she’s a mother also ready to shield her child from any danger. Added to the fact Kruger doesn’t play her as helpless, nor is she a waif-like woman. The bravery in her comes out after she plunges into a dangerous world with a man charged to protect her against whatever comes next, as she never gives up or hesitates to do what’s necessary.
I can’t say it enough: Maryland is a god damn amazing movie. I’ve not stopped raving about it since getting the chance to watch it recently. There’s a soft spot in my heart for filmmakers who take a chance on subverting genre expectations. While many think this is a typical story from seeing the trailer, once you get into the mix and let Alice Winocour take you for a pulsing, frantic ride right next to Vincent, the irreparably damaged soldier, you’ll find out this film is something more than its foundation suggests. Schoenaerts and Kruger sell the characters, giving us more to latch onto than any number of recent movies trying to ride off the success of stuff like Taken. This film shows us the tough guy protecting the woman we’ve seen all too often in a different light. The well written screenplay takes on PTSD, using sight and sound to push the envelope. All the while serving up some piping hot action and thrills in the midst of its engaging drama.
And if you don’t find yourself impressed by the surprise of Maryland, you may have an empty chest. Not an empty head; this isn’t a cerebral drama in that there’s anything utterly life altering being presented. But the excitement is such that by that last shot, if you’re like me, you’ll want to watch the whole thing over again to pay closer attention.
A contemporary Greek tragedy about conflicted, violent masculinities.