In the decade-plus since Grindhouse, there’s been a trend in independent genre film to pay homage to old-school exploitation movies. This is typically done in a winking, self-aware way, whether it’s digitally adding film scratches or dropping reels or deliberately crude gore effects or over-the-top ridiculous premises presented with ironic distance. The filmmakers need to let you know they’re making an exploitation movie so that your standards can be adjusted accordingly. I don’t say this as either a bad or a good thing; there have been a handful of these movies that I’ve enjoyed, but many more that feel tired and derivative, leaning on a stylistic gimmick rather than expressing an original voice.
Rondo, the latest effort from writer/director Drew Barnhardt (Murder Loves Killers Too), comes by its exploitation honestly. It doesn’t begin that way; in fact, if you were to go into the movie knowing nothing but its title (as I did), you would have absolutely no clue where it was going or where it would end up. There are no gimmicks, no clues that it will get around to be being a brutal and downright nasty revenge movie. It never even lets on exactly what characters you’re meant to be following, and every time you think you’ve got the next two or three movies figured out, Barnhardt pulls the rug out and pivots somewhere else. It’s only as the movie lands where it lands that you realize just what kind of film you’ve been watching all along. It’s thrilling.
Luke Sorge plays Paul, a young veteran who has come home and bottomed out. Hoping to turn things around for him, his sister Jill (Brenna Otts) sends him to see a therapist (Gena Shaw). She prescribes an unusual form of treatment, sending him to a kinky sex party that comes with a long list of rules dictated by a man named Lurdell (Reggie De Morton). Nothing goes quite as expected and things only get worse from there.
Talking about Rondo becomes difficult because preserving the turns the movie takes is important to the experience. While Barnhardt’s script deals with some truly ugly material, he doesn’t direct it that way. Instead, the movie is hypnotic and propulsive, with the photography by Ryan Bourbanais and the pulsing score by Ryan Franks and Scott Nickoley lending the proceedings a kind of slick inevitability. The attractive surface polish masks the ugliness underneath, which perfectly reflects what’s going on in the film: beautiful people navigate a world of seductive possibility, only to discover real awfulness taking place behind the scenes.
While never giving the movie the self-aware “grindhouse” treatment to really underline Rondo’s exploitation roots, Barnhardt does draw from a number of recognizable sources. Once again, though, they’re not what one might expect: the story may follow exploitation beats, but he’s not pulling from traditional exploitation elements. There are two long monologues given by two different characters, one near the start of the film and one near the end, that are both wildly pornographic but delivered with a kind of florid flatness – it’s like David Mamet describing a gangbang. There’s a sequence of silent, sustained, slow-motion suspense that’s pure De Palma. Actually, there’s quite a bit of De Palma throughout, from the changing protagonists to the instances of characters playing voyeur to something they shouldn’t be seeing to the way the tension is drawn out to an almost impossible degree, the director taking delight in his ability to manipulate the audience. The bravura finale is shot just like Robert Richardson by way of Quentin Tarantino. Rondo wears its influences proudly. Thankfully, all of its influences are things I happen to love, too.
Rondo is a twisted little movie, albeit twisted in the best way. It’s twisted in its story structure, it’s twisted in its depraved dialogue, twisted in its willingness to get insanely bloody and show us something we’re positive it’s not going to show us. It’s a movie made with real confidence, one which feels fresh and exciting as it unfolds – it’s only afterwards that you realize Drew Barnhardt has found a new way to skin a cat. (Not literally. There’s no animal violence in the movie.) It’s filled with surprises and gleefully over the top when the time comes, reveling in payback that’s especially satisfying because of how well it has been earned. It may ultimately be an exploitation movie, but I love exploitation – especially when it’s as smart, as unpredictable, and as nasty as Rondo is. This is exploitation done right.