RONDO is the second feature from writer/director Drew Barnhardt. Ethically I need to fully disclose and disclaim that he’s a reader of this websight and we’ve corresponded off and on for many years, which is why I plugged but didn’t officially review his 2009 no-budget slasher/thriller MURDER LOVES KILLERS TOO. So take it with whatever amount of salt you feel is necessary, but I truly believe movie #2, which was released on disc by Artsploitation Films earlier in the summer, is distinctive. It has the feel of the style of pulp novels I love, where a (in this case) somewhat blank character falls into some seedy business and part of the thrill is having no idea what direction it’s going or even what structure the story’s gonna take.
The plot concerns Paul (Luke Sorge), a combat veteran living with his protective younger sister Jill (Brenna Otts) after being dishonorably discharged for what we’re told was an “of course, mysterious” shooting incident. Jill tells him he can’t have alcohol or guns in the house, but he’s such a mess she ends up cradling him and pouring whiskey in his mouth like she’s bottle-feeding a baby. She sends him to an addiction doctor someone recommended to her, but doesn’t realize he’s going to talk to a weirdo who will give him a big monologue about the local fetish community and then “prescribe” for him to show up at an apartment in a highrise downtown to fuck some rich creep’s wife in front of him.
There are major narrative shifts that I don’t want to give away, but I’ll tell you how it starts. When he goes to that apartment, a guy named Lurdell (Reggie De Morton, DEATH CHASE, The Bold and the Beautiful) gives him and two other “gentlemen” a long, matter-of-fact employee orientation type speech about all of the ground rules and the horrible things they’re supposed to do in this “job of work for which we have been tasked” to provide “a very specific brand of good time” for his client Mr. Tim (Kevin Sean Ryan, STAR RAIDERS: THE ADVENTURES OF SABER RAINE). Mrs. Tim (Iva Nora) stands there for the whole speech and Lurdell describes her as “a willing and able co-conspirator,” but she doesn’t look too happy about it.
The gross, creepy weirdness is made deeply, darkly humorous by everyone’s refusal to acknowledge the gross, creepy weirdness of it. The three recruits listen to the whole thing like it’s normal. One guy looks bored. The other wears latex gloves and clutches some kind of case to his chest, and we never learn what that’s all about.
At the end of the speech Lurdell says, “And no weird stuff.” Maybe the biggest laugh for me.
There’s a scene where Paul has to endure awkward “waiting for their turn to fuck the guy’s wife” small talk with the bored asshole in the windbreaker, who asks “First time?” and complains “Too many rules and shit, you know? I feel like I’m back in school.”
I definitely can’t describe the job as “too good to be true,” but it’s much different and worse than what they’re being told, and Paul falls deep into a dangerous murder conspiracy. And we get to better know Jill as well as their father (Michael Vasicek, RAGE OF THE MUMMY), who’s also an alcoholic veteran.
Our protagonists are basically regular people who, when pushed, can turn into supremely capable ones determined to perform their required narrative task (solve a mystery, get revenge). Or at least try. But the antagonists are kind of more interesting – unpredictable because we’re not sure at first what they’re up to, their motives are more prurient and their behavior is harder to relate to. I really like the inappropriate calmness of Lurdell and his right hand man DeShawn (Jazz Copeland, RYDE OR DIE), a big guy who weirdly chews while chasing people and whose job largely consists of awkwardly crouching down to turn on the stereo when directed. But I think the MVP is Cassie (Gena Shaw, “Glory of Love” episode of Cobra Kai), who’s a little more manic and joyfully wicked.
I feel I should warn that because these people are total sickos whose business involves fetish stuff, there’s lots of graphic description and threats (and a little depiction) of degrading sex acts and sexual violence. But it’s played in an absurdly casual manner that’s hard to imagine someone finding titillating. For me it’s very effective and disturbing. I felt dirty, but never wanted to fast forward like in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE.
The DVD cover shows nylons, high heels, bullet shells dropping into a glass of whiskey – an implication of noir or pulp or ’70s sleaze, all of which are present. But at no point does this seem like one of those retro-grindhouse things low budget filmatists have been trying to sell for a decade or more. I feel like there’s a bit of Elmore Leonard in its depiction of a low rent criminal underground inhabited by cruel but not necessarily smart people. And Like Barnhardt’s first film it has stalking-and-chasing-through-a-house sequences and heavy influence from Brian DePalma and (believe it or not) BARRY LYNDON. That’s an unusual mix, not following the existing templates. It doesn’t feel like anything anybody else is trying to do.
Though a legit crime story and not a comedy, it’s thoroughly drenched in a dry humor I love. That comes through not only in the odd performances and turns of phrase, but through unorthodox stylistic choices like the use of a third person omniscient narrator (Steve Van Beckum). He’s a very formal narrator, not a hard boiled one, who helps move quickly through the parts of the story we don’t need to dwell on, like when Paul tries calling the police for help and they don’t do anything. “Although, to Paul’s credit,” the narrator adds, “the officer said it was the best call they had received in many weeks.”
In the beginning the narrator summarizes a bunch of conversations we never hear, and Paul sits through an entire therapy session without ever opening his mouth, so I assumed we’d never hear him talk. In the first fifteen minutes he only speaks two words, separately: “password,” and later “Rondo,” which is the password. But when it comes time to explain to Jill what he thinks is going on, he has no problem talking. Later, there’s a long stretch where we don’t hear Jill speak, we only watch her face.
I feel like the finale involving (SPOILER) a woman in lingerie confidently gunning down a bunch of bad people is much more on the nose about its sleaziness than the rest of the movie. It’s kind of like a really well done Action Girls sequence, which feels like a slight let down to me. On the other hand, it’s about five minutes straight of slo-mo squib explosions, and you don’t see that every day. Not these days.
RONDO was made in Denver, Colorado, presumably with the type of filmmaking that involves digging up every last connection or favor available, trying to scrape together something that’s not quite Hollywood, but better than home made. As in MURDER LOVES KILLERS TOO, Barnhardt has pulled off more style than you’d think his miniscule budget would allow. I’m sure he’d prefer something less clean and digital looking, but he and cinematographer John Bourbonais imply something more cinematic with their angles and controlled camera moves. I was especially impressed by the overhead shot simultaneously covering events on a 12th floor balcony, a lower balcony, and the street below.
Fuck handheld. Long live cranes.
I know Barnhardt would like to find the funding for something kinda like this but with a little more production value behind it. I hope he does, because it’s clear he could do a great job. But I’m thankful he didn’t let the lack of such an opportunity stop him from making RONDO. I guess it would be weird to call making a movie like this “doing God’s work,” but it’s doing somebody’s.