Movies · Reviews

‘Ultrasound’ is Twisty Sci-Fi But Less Than the Sum of Its Confounding Parts

It’s okay if filmmakers know more about their story than audiences, but what if they’re every bit as in the dark on the film as the rest of us?
Vincent Kartheiser in Ultrasound
Lodger Films
By  · Published on August 15th, 2021

This review of Ultrasound is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.

If your car breaks down in the middle of the night in the pouring rain, it’s a good indication that something weird is gonna happen to you. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the apex of this phenomenon, and it continues to bear fruit in 2021. In Ultrasound, a man named Glenn (Vincent Kartheiser) drives over a suspiciously-placed row of nails lined across the road one night and is forced to seek the nearest form of shelter and assistance. Things inevitably go off-the-rails from here, but director Rob Schroeder‘s feature narrative debut takes such plot progression even farther away than just rails and instead hurtles them into the stratosphere… then allows them to careen into the ocean. What starts off as a mysterious, slow-burn sci-fi, with clues doled out to keep the audience guessing well into the film’s second and third acts, turns into a frustrating puzzle whose questions never end, the answers to which become less worthwhile in figuring out.

After Glenn leaves his car behind to look for help, he comes across the home of Art (Bob Stephenson) and his much younger wife, Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez). Art is hospitable and eager to let Glenn stay, noting that the nearest auto mechanic and motel are both far enough out of the way that any choice other than staying at their place for the night would be unreasonable. The couple is a bit “off” from the get-go — Cyndi, brooding and overly inquisitive, reveals that she met her husband when she was seventeen when he was her high school English teacher and that they were promptly married only two years later. Art is oddly vocal about taking medication for depression and, once Cyndi has retired for the night, becomes insistent on allowing Glenn to sleep with her.

Glenn is ultimately persuaded into Cyndi’s bedroom, where they talk, seemingly connect with one another, and do have sex. But the next morning, both Cyndi and Art have vanished, so Glenn takes his leave. Following what feels like only a day or two later, but could be an indeterminable amount of time, Glenn is visited at his apartment by Art who breaks the news to Glenn that Cyndi is pregnant and that Glenn is the only person who could realistically be the father. And not only is she pregnant, she is visibly pregnant — exhibited to Glenn bizarrely via video footage that Art had taken of her sometime prior. Glenn is increasingly suspicious of Art’s motives, but he relents and implants himself as a permanent fixture in Cyndi’s life. Meanwhile, this narrative is intercut with scenes involving a young woman named Katie (Rainey Qualley), who is experiencing some stress due to time apart from her lover, Alex (Chris Garten). Even more puzzling, Katie is sometimes pregnant and sometimes very much not.

Due to the nature of Ultrasound, it’s hard to divulge too much of the plot without finding oneself in spoiler territory. The film is a misdirection by design, and the fun and propulsion of the first act lies in how you never really know where things are going to go and you’re eager to find out more. The film’s script (penned by Conor Stechschulte) is initially masterful at leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for its audience, considerate to show more than tell — to leave some things up to the imagination and keep viewers genuinely desperate to know what comes next. That is, until, well, you don’t really care to know anymore. When the questions start getting answered, their answers only lead to more questions. This confounding, puzzle-within-a-puzzle configuration reaches a point where it begets frustration and indifference rather than curiosity. Is the audience supposed to not ever fully understand what’s going on? Or is the information not being relayed in an intelligible way?

There is never a point at which Ultrasound feels confident answering either of these questions in addition to its own. It wants to pick and choose what information its audience can be privy to, but it doesn’t take long before things reach a point where it’s hard to care about any of the information at all, whether it be known or unknown. That’s the thing with ambiguity in narrative work — it should feel like we’re missing out on a world that only the filmmakers know. Here, it’s far too unclear if the filmmakers are as in the dark as we are.

The script isn’t given much room to breathe outside of its core impetus, and our characters, though bolstered by great performances from the cast, are largely one-dimensional, their core traits only by virtue of their placement within this story. This is in spite of elegant, emotive cinematography courtesy of Mathew Rudenberg, who blends clinical browns and grays with sporadic bursts of unsettlingly neon color, and production designer Alexis Rose fusing past and present tech into a setting that feels distinctly out of time. Schroeder’s film offers a welcome embrace of the unknown, while still simultaneously feeling too worried about its audience not knowing enough. It wants to have its cake and eat it too — keeping things out of reach while parsing out details so obscure that they bear no real weight. In the end, Ultrasound engenders an enigmatic experience whose mysteries just aren’t worth considering.

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Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.