Ultrasound throws its audience into the deep end with a triptych of stories that are destined to cross paths.
In the first story, Glen (Vincent Kartheiser) blows a tire late one night on a desolate road and is taken in by an odd couple who live nearby. There’s an obvious age disparity between Arthur (Bob Stephenson) and Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez) and over the course of the evening, which includes a lot of heavy drinking, it becomes clear that Cyndi isn’t particularly interested in her husband. When Cyndi retires to bed, the awkwardness ramps up a notch as Arthur encourages Glen to sleep with his wife. Cue several months later when both Arthur and Cyndi show up (separately) on Glen’s doorstep to discuss Cyndi’s pregnancy and Glen’s impending fatherhood.
In another story, Katie (Rainey Qualley), a pregnant woman, is hidden away in a bland apartment complex. The father of Katie’s child is Alex Harris (Chris Gartin), a politician on the cusp of winning his Senatorial bid whose campaign would be ruined by a needy mistress.
Then there’s the third, and most disconnected story, which follows trauma counsellor Shannon (Breeda Wool) as she begins working with Dr. Conners (Tunde Adebimpe) at a heavily secured medical facility. Shannon is introduced rehearsing lines of dialogue like an actor. She then makes minor adjustments while role-playing with Dr. Conners before putting the script into practice in an interrogation room complete with two-way mirror and an audio tech who manipulates audio frequencies.
Each of the three story lines involve an element of gaslighting that revels in generating paranoia and casting doubt on who and what can be believed. For Glen, there’s questions about Arthur and Cyndi’s intentions (did they plan the pregnancy all along?), while Katie is clearly being lied to by her lover and Shannon may be an unwitting participant in a dangerous experiment organized by Dr. Conners.
Unravelling the mystery of just what is going on and how these stories are interconnected is a big part of the fun of watching Ultrasound. Writer Conor Stechschulte cleverly structures the screenplay to incrementally introduce new characters and plots just as audiences – and the film – begin to get comfortable with the film’s direction. Ultrasound uses Glen’s uncomfortable night at Arthur and Cyndi’s as a cold open, then after the title card we’re introduced to Katie, whose story is the slightest and is intercut with the reveal that Cyndi is pregnant. Shannon’s arrival in the second act not only upheaves the narrative once again, but the way the various plot lines begin to intersect in bizarre and unexpected ways confirms that Ultrasound is a completely different film than its audience initially believed.
Kartheiser is the most recognizable face in the film, but his role isn’t the showiest of the bunch. After the first act, he fades into the background as Shannon becomes the main driver of the film. It’s a bold move, but it pays off thanks to Wool’s empathetic and engaging presence. She’s been the best part of a number of projects (UnReal S1, for example) and the character actress really shines when Shannon realizes the depth of her complicity in a project with dangerous implications.
Both screenwriter and editor Brock Bidell are careful to ensure that the film’s puzzle-box structure is intriguing and complicated, but not impossible to follow along. Credit also to the sound department – Bobb Barito, Scott Esterly, and Mark Sutton – for crafting a hypnotic, distorted aural effect to accompany director Rob Schroeder’s visuals, which increases the tension and atmosphere as we try to piece the film together.
Although the pay-off doesn’t ultimately live up to its fantastic possibilities (Stechschulte’s ambitious screenplay tries to stuff one too many subplots in), there’s something to be admired about the film’s ambition. Ultrasound may wind up tackling too much with its multilayered and interwoven narrative, but this is a trippy, paranoid sci-fi film that’s still fun to sort out. 3/5
Ultrasound played at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.