Ultrasound (2021)

Ultrasound first published by Movies On Weekends

“How does one thing have anything to do with the other?”, asks wheelchair-bound patient Glen (Vincent Kartheiser), hoping to see his immobility cured, but confused by the folder in front of him containing a script more of the movie than of the medical variety, and by the rôle-playing games that are constantly being demanded of him in his therapy sessions. “I don’t see the link between the two things.” 

“Yeah, well, it will all make sense as we go along, I promise”, suggests his counsellor Shannon (Breeda Wool), adding: “Our process addresses the physical via the psychological.” This conversation comes some way into Rob Schroeder’s Ultrasound, at which point the viewer will definitely be sharing Glen’s disorientation – but in fact from the very outset, Glen has seemed to be caught in a scripted scenario of pure cinematic cliché. For the film opens with a hackneyed horror set-up, as Glen is out driving alone in the rain at night when his tyres are blown out (by, we see, a nail trap), forcing him to seek refuge in the only house nearby. Glen is welcomed by the house’s charming if depressed owner Art (Bob Stephenson) and Art’s much younger wife Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez). Art plies his guest with drinks before making an indecent proposal. Before Glen quite knows what is happening, he becomes even further entrapped as Cyndi, now pregnant with his child, moves into his rented apartment. 

Meanwhile another woman, Katie (Rainey Qualley), keeps calling her distant boyfriend Alex (Chris Gartin), and seems entirely oblivious to her own gravid condition even if it is advanced enough to be obvious to everyone else. These two narratives may both be focused on pregnancy, and may therefore seem to offer a frame of reference for the film’s title – but as they play out in free-associative parallel, it is hard, as Glen puts it, to “see the link between the two things.” And then there is the question of why Glen’s apartment is under surveillance, or how he and Cyndi end up bewildered patients in the Psonotics Research clinic where Shannon works under the watchful eye of Dr Conners (Tunde Adebimpe). 

Gradually all these elements will come together and be explained, but only in such a way as to engender ever more layers of ambiguity and enigma. Conor Stechschulte’s screenplay, which he has adapted from his own four-part graphic novel Generous Bosom (2014-2016), presents a series of increasingly unreliable situations that at times self-consciously reveal themselves to be, precisely, artificially constructed scenarios. This leaves viewers as unsure as the characters as to what is real, and what is mere gaslighting, prestidigitation and mind game. For here, scientific, political, military and personal motives all bump and grind against each other in their interest to control a narrative which is fast coming to term. It is a commonplace in thrillers that no one is who they seem, but here the same principle extends to place and even time, as Glen, Cyndi, Katie and perhaps even Shannon find themselves befuddled experimental subjects running in circles through a maze under others’ not always benign influence, with suggestion, sedatives and special frequencies being used to alter their perception of the world around them. This makes for a very unstable cinematic environment in which the viewer too becomes quickly lost and uncertain of where or how exactly the story ends, or whether, once our mind has been impregnated with all these subliminal ideas and ultra-sounds, we can ever truly escape their spell.

Opening itself to suggestions from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (1997), Jeremy Kasten’s 2007 remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore (1970) and especially Antonio Tublén’s LFO (2013), Schroeder’s feature debut is a hypnotic, paranoid experiment in the sort of psychological manipulations that are the natural province of advertisers, abusers, agents of social control – and of course filmmakers. “Today’s session is going to be a little weird, and I just wanted to warn you ahead of time,” Shannon will tell Cyndi – but her words serve as fair warning to the viewer too, as Ultrasound takes us to uncomfortable places where the human mind becomes a mere plaything for a devious director. If, with the escapism of its classic Hollywood ending, this film leaves you, like Glen, feeling a winner, that sense of triumphant victory may be Pyrrhic, or even entirely illusory. After all, lab rats need not know that they are trapped in a cage, any more than ordinary suckers, or the electorate – let alone cinemagoers – need see how their strings are being pulled and how the veil is being drawn over their eyes. Schroeder shows just how easily we can all become chumps, dupes and victims.

strap: Rob Schroeder’s mesmeric mind-melting mystery manipulates our experiences even as its hidden plots come to term

Anton Bitel