“Ultrasound” is a psychological thriller that’s built for bewildering, uncomfortable, WTF-worthy moments. In a film whose major characters are victims of prolonged hypnosis, you can expect a number of storytelling techniques for an unnerving movie—brainy deception by the filmmakers, a generated distrust in the narrative, twists, etc. “Ultrasound” does some of that but mostly creates tension by withholding information, even when it feels necessary to do otherwise. This constant obfuscation can be frustrating, but it’s not what ultimately undermines the film. As it unravels past its trickery and vagueness deep into the story, “Ultrasound” begins to show its limitations, and as with any mind trick, the illusion eventually has to fade.
One of the film’s merits is that it wastes no time in getting started. Glen (Vincent Kartheiser) is driving home in the rain, across a deserted country road, when his tires are punctured by deliberately placed nails. Coincidentally, a lone house is nearby and it’s where Glen seeks refuge. From the start, we know something is wrong. The home’s tenants, Art and Cindy (played by Bob Stephensen and Chelsea Lopez) are an unhappily married couple with a tense rapport. There are tropes at play that confirm a horror: Glen is gradually impaired—and rendered vulnerable—with drinks at the hands of his host, and Glen is given a proposal that we fear he’ll regret to accept: Art offers Glen the chance to sleep with his wife. Glen acquiesces, and if “Ultrasound” were a slasher film, Glen would soon meet his end.
But there are more things at play here, and we’re immediately introduced into a secondary plot, focusing on a woman named Katie (Rainey Qualley) who’s having an affair with a politician. With some visual tricks, we learn that she’s pregnant in the eyes of others but through her own perspective, she’s not. Interesting: is she pregnant or not and to what extent is the supranatural at work here?
We expect to receive answers through a third storyline, which follows the film’s true protagonist Shannon (Breeda Wool). She’s a trauma therapist working at a covert research facility and is experimenting on a few of our other characters—bringing all narratives together—causing us to wonder if she’s one of the bad guys. When we realize Shannon isn’t, the whole film gains clarity and perhaps plateaus.
I imagine “Ultrasound” was adapted from a successfully mind-bending short and then stretched thin to become a feature. It’s not, of course, (instead, it was adapted from the graphic novel “Generous Bosom” written by the film’s screenwriter, Conor Stechschulte) but it would explain certain dispensable elements and a few missing ones. For one, the storyline involving the corrupt Senator and his mistress is amusingly mismatched with the rest of the plot. In hindsight, it does little for the story, at all. It effectively serves as the villain’s side-plot, so it informs us of his whereabouts, but it does nothing to flesh out his character.
“Ultrasound” fundamentally hinders itself with the way it handles its villain-hypnotist, arguably the most captivating character in the whole movie. In fact, we’re never informed of his motivation. He remains one-dimensional in a world that is anything but. The filmmakers crafted an intriguing and complex premise, and you begin to wish that “Ultrasound” invested more time in the characters that manipulate it. After one half of a film that keeps us guessing, the story has to land on its feet, but there’s not a lot of solid ground given and no indication as to why any of it’s happening.
That is not to say that “Ultrasound” isn’t profoundly enjoyable. The best moments are when the film resembles a horror, when it takes advantage of its ability to shock viewers, or whenever Shannon is on screen. Both Shannon and Cindy are two of the best, most fleshed-out characters. And the pacing of the film can effectively drown out all the other flaws. Most of all, you have to admire the movie for trying to carve out its own path among thrillers.
“Ultrasound” is the debut movie for filmmaker Rob Schroeder, who has obviously been inspired by Christopher Nolan’s complexity-striven films and David Cronenberg’s body horror (evident in one of the film’s more potent scenes where Cindy pokes at her pregnant belly). But perhaps we could’ve used more of something else. Rather than argue that the mind-jerking and deception become tiresome, I’d say those are the film’s strengths. And yet, once its inner scheme is revealed, “Ultrasound” suddenly feels very small.