Ultrasound is appealing in spurts but frustratingly sticks to a safe middle ground where it could have stood to be messier.
Rob Schroeder’s Ultrasound exists on an uneasy continuum between genuinely unsettling weirdness and J.J. Abrams-style mystery-box storytelling, where plot exists solely as a twist delivery system to jolt an unsuspecting audience. It leans more towards the former than the later, for the better, but one can’t shake the feeling that it’s ultimately an elaborate shaggy dog story. On an isolated back road on a dark and stormy night, Glen (Vincent Kartheiser) gets a flat tire and seeks refuge at a nearby home. Here he meets Art (Bob Stephenson) and Art’s much younger wife, Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez). Art is gregarious and chatty, with a kind of insinuating goofball charm, and he insists that Glen stay with them for the night. Things turn strange quickly: Glen has brief dissociative moments that find him observing his own conversations like a bystander, while Art plies him with alcohol and slowly but surely talks him into sleeping with Cyndi. Glen is understandably reticent, but Cyndi seems receptive to the idea and soon the deed is done. In the first of what will be several narrative swerves, the film then switches gears and we are introduced to an entirely different character, Katy (Rainey Qualley). First seen in a swimming pool, the thin, lithe woman is doing laps and fending off creepy advances from a random man. She retires to the locker room, and while changing out of her swimsuit mutters to herself about the dryer shrinking her clothes. But as another woman in the room observes her, we see that Katy is suddenly very pregnant. Here Schroeder weaponizes traditional shot/countershot film grammar, as one angle presents a pregnant Katy and the reverse angle returns to her initial lean frame. What exactly is going on here? Eventually, Katy returns home and makes a frantic phone call; when a man finally comes to see her, it’s revealed that he’s a politician and that Katy is his mistress who’s being hidden away until an upcoming election is over. There’s also the matter of two scientists — Dr. Conners (Tunde Adebimpe) and Shannon (Breeda Wool) — who are collating data and rehearsing scripted lines that happen to be snippets of dialogue that we’ve already heard from the mouths of Cyndi and Glen. Meanwhile, Art tracks Glen down and explains that Cyndi is pregnant as a result of their one-night stand, and begs Glen to come see her. In quick order, Cyndi and Glen are suddenly living together, with Art stopping by to check on them occasionally. There are also two very serious looking men parked outside secretly keeping tabs on the duo.
There’s a lot going on here, and this is only (roughly) the first half. Further plot synopsis would rob the film of some of its odd pleasures, although it’s clear enough that some sort of conspiracy is afoot. The narrative gradually expands to focus on Conners and Shannon, who are running what appears to be a research institute that has very specific designs on Cyndi and Glen, while Art functions as a wild card who may or may not be in the employ of Katy’s mysterious boyfriend. Schroeder and writer Conor Stechschulte, adapting his own graphic novel Generous Bosom for the screen, have a lot of fun juggling all these disparate threads; the problem then becomes what to do with them all. Ultrasound is neither as intricately structured as The Prestige, nor as inventively expressionistic as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, just two of the films it shares DNA with, but it eventually must decide if it wants the narrative to make some sort of coherent sense or remain a phantasmagoric mind-fuck. It winds up splitting the difference, occupying a vaguely unsatisfying middle ground that involves a lot of pseudoscience mumbo jumbo while Schroeder cuts frantically between multiple planes of reality, revisiting earlier scenes as flashbacks that might not have really happened, and stripping away layers of artifice. There are so many characters vying for attention that a traditionally cathartic ending doesn’t really work: the actors are all quite good, but they’re as much puzzle pieces as they are recognizable human beings. Replete with reveals and reversals, Ultrasound eventually ties together all its loose ends, but maybe it could’ve stood to stay a little messier.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.