Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Rob Schroeder
Writer: Conor Stechschulte
Stars: Vincent Kartheiser, Chelsea Lopez, Breeda Wool, Tunde Adepimpe, Rainey Qualley, Bob Stephenson
By Caelyn O’Reilly
“Ultrasound”(2021) is a film that seems to be pitching itself as cerebral or head-trippy, compared in review quotes in its trailer to “Memento”(2000) and “Primer”(2004). It’s clear from the outset that the creators are indeed attempting to create that blend of confusing yet enrapturing cinema frequently attributed to the likes of Nolan, Aronofsky and Cronenberg. And while the film does show some early promise that seems to earn those comparisons, by the end I was left both bored to tears and laughing hysterically at the narrative’s ludicrous twists.
The opening section of “Ultrasound” starts strong, feeling amateurish but intriguing in that early-effort-from-a-now-renowned-director sort of way with some strong “10 Cloverfield Lane”(2016) vibes. Director Rob Schroeder displays some impressive and experimental filmmaking in the use of bold, coloured lighting, focus-shifts and especially the clever reality-bending editing that does an exceptional job of selling some of the narrative’s later turns. Plus Zak Engel’s fun electronic score full of retro bleeps and bloops adds some much needed energy to the proceedings. Though there are moments where the film’s low budget does become unfortunately noticeable; stock sound effects, poorly disguised ADR work and some unconvincing filming locations (one scene establishes a character as a politician by placing a single, conspicuous campaign sign on his otherwise barren wall).
But after that initial 15-minute stretch as the film’s scope quickly expands and ties itself in knots it becomes a deeply fatiguing watch that feels like it’ll never end. The whole thing has the drowsy energy of something you watch in bed in the wee hours of the morning, floating in and out of consciousness, barely following along. This isn’t helped by the tenuously-main character of Glen, Vincent Kartheiser acts drearily listless in the role throughout, like his sleeping pills are constantly on the verge of kicking in.
There are some real bright spots in the cast, however. Chelsea Lopez’s Cyndi provides a much more emotionally engaging lead who manages to convey the movie’s unsettling nature more powerfully with her doe-eyed introduction than much of the film afterward. And while the second act is a bit of a slog, the story does regain a spark of life when it shifts focus to Brenda Wool’s Shannon, who is easily the highlight of the cast, bringing life and energy to an otherwise interminable second half.
Now, I’ve been punctuating my praise of the film thus far with caveats and “howevers”, and that’s for one unfortunate reason. The script from debut screenwriter Conor Stechschulte is atrocious.
The early-to-mid stretch of the film can be frustrating in its obtuseness but that would be understandable if it all came together for a suitably heady payoff. But the ultimate reveal of the force behind all these seemingly disparate and perplexing elements is both underwhelming in its simplicity and laughably cheesy, ripped straight from decades old moral panics and the B-est of 50’s B-movies. This veers into the grotesque as the film attempts to tackle intensely serious issues such as grooming, sexual assault and a whole pointless subplot taking a bewilderingly misguided jab at right wing politicians, trying to tie of all of them to the script’s boogeyman of choice. At the very least it culminates in an enjoyably chaotic climax that alleviates some of the sour taste the film left me with.
The whole thing feels as if it was written with the goal of being “cerebral” without actually having a strong idea for the story or even how to go about achieving that effect much of the time. The dialogue attempts to be intriguing or mysterious by being infuriatingly indirect, important events and information are constantly and haphazardly skipped over, and Glen in particular is a character whose motivations and feelings about his situation are left wholly inscrutable. What’s especially insulting is how much of the film is revealed to be little more than wasted time and misdirection by the end. This is most obvious in Cyndi and Katie’s mysterious pregnancies that begin the narrative’s dive into the sci-fi genre. This aspect that makes up one of the title’s double meanings is utterly superfluous, the film straining to give it some basic narrative purpose before completely giving up and abandoning it. Similarly hard done by is the character of Art, played by Bob Stephenson, who initially seems like one of the most important parts of the film before being unceremoniously dropped into an often cringe-inducing extraneous subplot, quickly diminishing from the seeming main antagonist to a figure that could have been written out of the script entirely with the film being left better and more coherent for it.
For all its impressive filmmaking and a few standout performances, “Ultrasound” – as much as it wants to be – is not cerebral, it’s just a mess. Burying itself in pointless subplots and a listless pace that attempts to force a deep aesthetic onto what is ultimately a comically shallow story.