And so, once again, it’s James’ overreaching concern that ultimately sets him on the path to self-destruction as he crosses professional boundaries and pushes his mental and physical limits in investigating Helen’s mysterious illness. His interest in her certainly isn’t predatory – there’s really no romantic or erotic dimension to it at all – but it’s nonetheless an obsession that becomes a danger to himself and others. Those in his orbit, especially Dr. Harrison, can see the inevitable crash coming, but James remains blind to what’s coming – or, maybe, just willfully ignorant of it.
Rounding might have still been interesting as a more clinical kind of drama, the sort of medical mystery that House might tackle, but what really matters here is the human story, and it’s a devastating one. Smallwood’s performance is what anchors it all, a breakout effort that generates great sympathy for the character even as his decisions and behavior become increasingly reckless and misguided. James is single-minded in hiding and subsuming his pain, but Smallwood shows remarkable nuance in the way that he allows telling glimpses of it to shine through. Even at its most excruciating, the film keeps its viewers firmly on James’ side, and Smallwood’s impassioned performance is a very important part of that.
And, make no mistake, this is often an excruciating viewing experience. Thompson (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Christopher) doesn’t let up on the heaviness, and it isn’t only the movie’s themes and implications that are tough to take. At times, it echoes the nerve-jangling anxiety of a late-period Safdie Brothers film. Its visuals, editing, and soundtrack are finely tuned to regularly leave the audience breathless and emotionally drained. To balance that visceral intensity with such a strong emotional core is a tightrope act that Thompson pulls off to impressive effect.
“…the investment is well worth it.”
There’s only one real misstep: a handful of garish, horror movie-like hallucinations James experiences in his most fraught moments. Smallwood is so good at externalizing James’ inner demons that they feel out-of-place and unnecessary, but they’re at least used sparingly enough that they’re not a major distraction.
Rounding does eventually arrive at a conclusion that follows through on its tragic impulses, but it does so in a way that’s unexpectedly thoughtful and moving, confronting an impossible situation with equal parts grace and horror. The closing scene is just one final indication that this director and star are firmly, assuredly in command of their talents.
Rounding can be a tough film and one that puts its viewers through a lot, but the investment is well worth it.
Rounding screened at the 2o22 Tribeca Film Festival.
"…the sort of medical mystery that House might tackle..."