The dark crime thriller Rondo is an exercise in bad taste. Nothing is off limits and no one is safe. Written and directed by Drew Barnhadt, Rondo recently held its world premiere at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival where he was applauded for his morbidly hilarious short Herbie! back in 2004. Rondo is no less morbid, making it the year’s hardest comedy to laugh at. The film shifts tone and narrative pretty jarringly from one act to the next, but fans of exploitation film that feels dangerous to watch will no doubt find a new home in what is surely the most nutters film of the festival.
Rondo follows Paul (Luke Sorge), a young veteran struggling with alcoholism and the lasting effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At his sister’s request, he visits a therapist to seek help and get clean. A little more alternative in her treatment than most, Paul’s therapist (Gena Shaw) makes some pretty surprising prescriptions after only a few minutes of discussion. Rather than enter a detox program, the therapist advises Paul to continue drinking. She also tells him that what he really needs to straighten out is sex.
Paul’s therapist recommends that he attend a sex party an associate is hosting the following night. She writes down an address, the code word “RONDO”, and send him on his merry way. Paul is understandably skeptical, but after yet another restless night, haunted by gun shots and paranoia, he reluctantly goes to have his prescription filled. At the party, Paul meets two other men there for the “party”, as well a few security guards and the party’s host. Before the first man disappears behind a closed door, Paul and the others are given a brief orientation of how the night’s festivities are expected to follow.
Outlining their client’s wishes, Paul and the other men are told that all manner of rough and abusive activities are not only allowed, but encouraged. All the while, the client stands tall as the host describes a laundry list of vile acts that will soon befall his wife. She, many years his junior stares blankly at Paul throughout this moment. She doesn’t call out for help, she doesn’t look worried, but she also doesn’t look excited or eager to begin. She makes eye contact with everyone but she doesn’t register their existence in her eyes. We assume that she has been drugged and has no understanding of where she is or what is going on.
Of course, things are not what they seem, and the party goes from zero to one hundred very quickly. Paul becomes witness to something he was never expected to see, putting himself and his loved ones in deep, dark danger. What ensues is a tale of revenge that pits two families against one another in a cold-blooded battle that swallows everyone. Tragically, Rondo suffers from it’s micro budget, forced to play in a sandbox that an only fit a handful of set pieces. If there were more space for the story to sprawl out into, the criminal underbelly at the center of the story could have stretched beyond one single condo.
If you’re a fan of noir and kung-fu revenge films, Rondo is definitely the movie for you. While you won’t find any kung-fu fighting, the story structure and cinematography are cut from the same cloth. Undercutting the violence and macabre nature of the film is an omnipresent narrator backed by a whimsical score. The fairy tale quality of these touches help to balance the cruelty onscreen and undermine the expectations we have of a classic fable. Sadly, this narration disappears too soon and I found the remaining scenes lacking the modern-mythical tone set out in the opening.
Rondo escalates quickly into the curiously depraved mess. Like a Bret Easton Ellis novel set in a world of excess where you couldn’t possibly belong, Rondo is a parable of debauchery and deviance. I found the second act too light on the quirky madness I was promised in the beginning, but it does build toward an ending more insane than anything in the previous sleaze-filled 80 minutes. Rondo is not a movie you would ever want to watch with your parents, or anyone that think highly of you and your good taste. I can forgive the lo-fi look out of respect for the overall vision of the project but it does lack a polishing that could have easily made this movie a little more accessible….despite its vile (but satisfying) absurdity.
1.5 / 4 eberts
Rondo celebrated its world premiere on July 27th at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival. Check out more of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantasia Fest Coverage here, and be sure to sound off with your thoughts over on Twitter and in our Facebook Group!