Rondo begins with the sound of five loud shots, and Paul (Luke Sorge) waking in sweaty shock on the couch in the home of his younger sister Jill (Brenna Otts). “Paul came home from the war with a fire in his head and a dishonourable discharge under his belt,” states the narrator (voiced by Steve Van Beckum), archly ensuring that Paul’s troubles, though rooted in the real-life horrors of PTSD, also come with an artificial, ‘storied’ quality. You can tell at once, not just from the voiceover, but from the chiaroscuro lighting and canted angles, that we are deep in noir territory here, clinging to the shadowy history of cinema in much the same way that Paul remains haunted by his own past. Paul, it will turn out, comes from a line of dishonourably discharged soldiers, his own father Sam (Michael Vasicek) also being a disgraced veteran (of Vietnam!) with a similar drinking problem.
“I let you stay here,” Jill tells her brother, “but the one rule is no booze and no guns. I can even deal with girls – except those with booze or guns.” Hoping to help Paul onto the wagon, Jill sends him to see an addiction therapist, Cassie (Gena Shaw), whom she recently met – and the heavily pregnant Cassie, believing that “a little lay can solve a lot of big problems”, suggests that Paul try out Denver’s fetish scene, and more specifically a private party in the penthouse of an apartment complex, with ‘rondo’ the password he should say to the doorman. Curious, and with nothing better to do, Paul goes along – and so enters a strange world facilitated, with incongruous gentility, by Lurdell (Reggie De Morton) and his associate DeShawn (Ketrick ‘Jazz’ Copeland) – a world where male strangers like Paul are invited, one after the other, to violate a young woman (Iva Nora) on the instructions, and before the eyes, of her wealthy older husband Mr Tim (Kevin Sean Ryan). “No weird shit,” insists Lurdell with hilarious redundancy, after inviting the three guests to degrade the woman in more or less any way that they please. What ensues is a chaotic and violent sequence of events where booze, guns and girls will indeed all play their part, and where rules will definitely be broken.
At the heart of Rondo is a niche service which – very much like the film itself – offers paying clients “a very specific brand of good time”, which is to say a rarefied experience of sex and violence to gratify most if not all the deviant desires of genre. The second feature – after Murder Loves Killers Too (2009) – to be written and directed by Drew Barnhardt, Rondo is a Tarantino-esque clusterfuck of a movie, constantly wrong-footing the viewer with its unpredictable turns of events. Noir remains its core, but this is a very smart piece of modern pulp, always offsetting its torrid transgressiveness with a deep streak of black humour. The credits’ classically curlicued calligraphy (with the faux-formal addition of the definite article to designations like ‘producer’ and ‘director’), the dry, estranging narration, and the slyly extravagant orchestral score from Ryan Franks and Scott Nickoley, license the viewer never to take all the bludgeoning, bloody outrage and exploitation on screen too seriously, but instead just to enjoy the wild, rollicking ride, while savouring cinematographer John Bourbonais’ exquisite framing and editor Lionel Footstander’s fluid intercutting of scenes.
“That doesn’t make a lick of damn sense to me,” comments Sam on the film’s convoluted and somewhat unhinged plotting. Yet as it shifts rapidly from recovery drama to mystery thriller to crazy crime story to brutal revenger, accumulating a high body count along the way, Rondo provides one lurid pleasure after another, blow by bloody blow, until the explosive, ecstatic climax. Barnhardt’s deft, knowingly daft handling of all these elements is a tour de force of highly assured genre filmmaking, and the mark of a real talent emerging from cinema’s more perverse, less salubrious end. “Ordinary’s not the thing that I want,” as one character puts it. “I want the other thing.” Rondo delivers just that, very satisfyingly.
© Anton Bitel