Directed and Written by Drew Barnhardt
There’s a whole underground world of deviant sexual play out there that most people don’t encounter, and Rondo is one of the few films to use this perfect environment as a vehicle for horror. The uncertainty, the secrecy, and the idea of being taken well out of your element and comfort zone works incredibly well.
Rondo begins with Paul, a veteran experiencing some dark battles with unemployment and substance abuse, who lives with his sister while he struggles in everyday life. His sister, Jill, frequently gets annoyed as she has to watch over him like a child. But when she sees him in a drunk hole wracked with pain, she gives him some outside advice to hopefully get him some sort of help. Not a doctor — no, a psychiatrist. This is the catalyst for Paul’s deadly night out. The psychiatrist recommends he try out some underground erotic adventures and fuck his problems away, handing him a card that leads to an apartment with the password “Rondo.”
The start of the film is an uncomfortable, at times spacey, slow-burn thriller with some elements of dark comedy, as well as a great narrator describing to us what Paul is going through. The narrator adds a surrealist feel; it’s strange but it works so well. Paul ends up in the apartment waiting for his turn to have his way with another man’s wife, but witnesses the men who were ahead of him in line being murdered in the other room as they do the deed. He needs to find a way to make it out alive.
Eventually this thriller segues into a revenge film, and whilst there’s a lot of scattered good things from here on out, the tonal shift and swap feels a bit jarring, with elements that seem to be phased in and out at random. Early on Paul barely speaks, the narrator at times being his voice instead; it’s an interesting storytelling form, but gets confusing later when the same voice speaks for another character, and then is dropped altogether.
One element of Rondo that stands out at times is the lighting and the cinematography. There are some amazingly well done scenes, from the sprinkler shot just after Paul dies, to Jill sitting half naked in a chair whilst a strangely lighthearted party goes on around her, to the final scene of the film. The ending sequence takes place in a dark room, with individual lights illuminating the characters, contrasting them as if on stage. However, though there are fantastic shots, there are also some that feel awkward. The first meeting between Paul and the psychiatrist is shot like a documentary interview, which may be intentional, but it feels very out of place and doesn’t really add to the scene at all. The highlighting of the characters against a pitch backdrop in the ending looked amazing and brought the focus entirely on what followed. Also, it feels like the film could have ended at an early scene and would have been an excellent short piece. Even though there was more story to tell, Rondo ends up stretching out, seeming as if the ideas of a short film were scattered throughout a full length.
The black comedy is ramped up, still with some suspense and some great scenes, but it loses some edge and atmosphere with the change up. Rondo is definitely a fun film, enjoyable and quite well put together for an indie endeavor, but the start promises a lot that the movie quickly veers away from. Still, the finale comes as a gory, over-the-top bloodbath, the perfect denouement for the revenge arc of the story. Rondo is book-ended by some skillfully constructed and conceptually great scenes, but falters during the transition between the two.