With his 2019 debut Saint Frances, Alex Thompson offered up a strong resume. It wasn’t a film that entirely worked, but it was rich in empathetic discourse about motherhood and womanhood, intelligent when it wasn’t papering over its themes and characters with lo-fi indie affectation, a common affliction among first-time filmmakers that’s hardly preclusive to future success and growth. Thompson’s sophomore effort, Rounding, arrives to reasonable expectation then, particularly as the director moves into genre territory, an arena often more amenable to singular artistic expression than the world of low-budget dramedy. The film also occupies the rarely used space of hospital horror: the genre is no stranger to asylums or nefarious psychiatrists, but fewer films have embraced the medical side of healthcare — body horror excepted — and particularly from the perspective of a benevolent doctor. Which is to say, there’s some implicit novelty to Rounding’s framework.
James (Namir Smallwood), a second-year resident coming off some sort of mental breakdown at his previous hospital, transfers to the rural Greenville where he quickly becomes fixated on asthmatic patient Helen (Sidney Flanigan), questioning prevailing opinions about her condition and suggesting House-like that something far more labyrinthine is going on than her current diagnosis. (James gets some pushback from his supervisor about how such Sherlockian investigation is not their responsibility, but any larger indictment of the medical industrial-complex is left undeveloped.) He comes to suspect something fishy is going on with Helen’s mother (Rebecca Spense) — which the film visually articulates well before James comes to this conclusion near the film’s end — and begins to defy orders and generally unravel while pursuing this “lead.” In theory, it’s not a bad approach: the film indeed shares more DNA with the lineage of psychologically spiraling detective films than anything else, with James quickly falling into dangerous obsession.
Unfortunately, it’s all superficial gloss. James is never established as a particularly adept doctor — despite a few lines that outright tell us he is — or a reliable protagonist; he instead scans as damaged goods from the outset, the only reason to trust him being the established literary and cinematic narrative history that tells us to trust the paranoiac. No real depth is built into the character, relying on a last-minute admission to provide explanation, but the film has become far too flat by that point for any of the emotional weight of his disclosure to register. Elsewhere, Spense is cheaply villainized, vacillating only between open antagonism and wide-eyed anxiety as James’ odd behavior escalates. In fact, Helen is the only character here who doesn’t behave as if aware that she’s in a psychological horror movie, her limited screen time offering the few moments that manage to cut through the film’s intentionally oppressive mood.
But Rounding’s most glaring issues come in Thompson’s efforts to add genre texture to the fairly rote narrative beats. The result is a veritable bingo card of recycled horror tricks that hold little meaning and almost zero cogency. Most notable is the film’s saturation of hallucination sequences, the crutch of all weak psycho-thrillers, few of which bear any internal logic or visual appeal: in a particularly cheap moment, James imagines getting obliterated by a semi while jogging on the country road, which only serves to illustrate his general distress and connects to nothing else. Some practical, lo-fi visual effects are also sprinkled throughout James’ hallucinations, which at least suggest a bit of personality beyond the aggressive anonymity found everywhere else, but like all the religious symbology permeating the film to no payoff, serve absolutely no functional purpose. And then there’s the ankle James injures, which seems to desiccate and rot across the film’s runtime, and likewise serves no purpose other than to underline his wholesale disintegration. The whole thing is just a logic-less grabbag of garbled horror signifiers with no organizing principle or guiding thematic interests, the kind of film an A.I. might produce if fed a sampling of the genre’s past couple decades of content. There’s obviously some intimation of trauma and workplace stress inherent to the material, but like everything else here, it’s not meaningfully explored enough to even align Rounding with the metaphorical wave of films dominating horror these days. Given the utter lack of anything to latch onto, the film is simply dead on arrival. It’s a psychological thriller void of any actual psychology; a medical “whodunnit” without either meaningful science or mystery; a horror that has no idea how to enunciate the horrific. Consider that Rounding’s autopsy.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.