‘Ultrasound’ Review: A Frustrating Sci-Fi Puzzle-Box Thriller

An auto accident is the catalyst for a dreamlike nightmare involving various strangers in Rob Schroeder’s confounding sci-fi thriller.

Courtesy of Tribeca Festival

There’s a limit to how long a movie can mess with viewers’ minds, and “Ultrasound” eventually crosses that threshold. A thriller whose discomforting early going provides few clues to the head-spinning madness lying in wait, director Rob Schroeder’s feature debut channels a host of acclaimed masters (David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Christopher Nolan) while attempting to craft a uniquely beguiling dreamscape in which nothing is as it appears. Patience is the prime virtue required by this story of a man and a woman brought together by random (or is it?) circumstance, although the reward for such perseverance isn’t enough to make up for its prior, aggravating puzzle-box obliqueness.

Heading home in the rain from a wedding, Glen (Vincent Kartheiser) drives over a plank of nails and has to seek help at a nearby house. There, he’s welcomed in by Art (Bob Stephenson), who after a bit of friendly chitchat, cajoles Glen into sleeping with his younger wife Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez). Glen’s unease over this arrangement is significant, and it only escalates when, a short time afterwards, he’s visited at home by Art, who shows him a videotape of a pregnant Cyndi in the shower. Art convinces Glen that he’s now responsible for Cyndi (whom Art apparently met when he was her high-school teacher), and it’s not long before the two are cohabitating in an apartment that, like the rest of the world presented by Schroeder, seems to exist on the other side of reality.

At the same time, “Ultrasound” turns its attention to two other women. Katie (Rainey Qualley) is having an affair with running-for-reelection senator Alex Harris (Chris Gartin), as well as contending with comments about her own pregnancy — even though her stomach size seems to vary at a moment’s notice. Somehow, the plights of Katie, Glen and Cyndi are also related to that of Shannon (Breeda Wool), a psychological researcher employed at an enigmatic facility run by Dr. Conners (Tunde Adebimpe). Shannon’s work has to do with hypnosis and experiments involving reading lines from a script comprised of dialogue spoken by Glen and Cyndi. Before long, she’s rehearsing those same scenes with Glen and Cyndi themselves, in a bizarre twist that makes about as much sense as it sounds.

As penned by Conor Stechschulte (adapting his graphic novel “Generous Bosom”), “Ultrasound” has been designed to confound, and confound it most definitely does for the majority of its runtime. The film clearly intends for such uncertainty to be intriguing, but the further it plunges into mystifying sci-fi terrain (beginning, fittingly, with the sight of Katie diving into a swimming pool), the more its lack of clarity begins to irk. Revelations lead to further questions which only lead to additional semi-satisfying answers, thereby forcing one to give up trying to make heads or tails of any of it — especially given that, at a certain point, it becomes clear that the definitive facts one craves will be insufficient to justify so much willful opacity.

Mathew Rudenberg’s color-coded, fish-eye-lensed visuals amplify the dreamlike unreliability of everything depicted, and Zak Engel’s score — full of eclectic and menacing electronic noises that are directly related to the plot’s bombshells — further contributes to the material’s disorienting quality. The film’s aesthetics are as assured as its dazed-and-confused lead performances, led by Kartheiser as a zonked-out individual who quickly loses his bearings, and Stephenson as an amiable stranger with potentially sinister motives. Yet the film gets lost inside its own pretzel-logic narrative, burrowing so deep into its mystery that it can never find a fulfilling, much less magical, way out.

‘Ultrasound’ Review: A Frustrating Sci-Fi Puzzle-Box Thriller

Reviewed in Tribeca Film Festival (online), June 11, 2021. Running time: 103 MIN.

  • Production: A Lodger Films production. Producers: Rob Schroeder, Georg Kallert, Charlie Prince. Executive producers: Justin Allen, Shayna Schroeder. Co-producers: Spencer Jezewski, Brock Bodell.
  • Crew: Director: Rob Schroeder. Screenplay: Conor Stechschulte. Camera: Mathew Rudenberg. Editor: Brock Bodell. Music: Zak Engel.
  • With: Vincent Kartheiser, Chelsea Lopez, Breeda Wool, Tunde Adebimpe, Rainey Qualley, Chris Gartin, Bob Stephenson.