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Tribeca 2021 Review: 'Ultrasound' is a boundless and beguiling sci-fi mystery

Rob Schroeder’s 'Ultrasound' is as fascinating as it can be frustrating when lives collide in suspensfully facilitated fashion.

Can you hear the truth in 'Ultrasound.'
(Image: © Tribeca)

Our Verdict

'Ultrasound' pushes narrative boundaries but can be a bit careless with its simultaneous plot diversions, if only to somehow still stoke the fires of healthy sci-fi intrigue.

For

  • 📻 Keeps audiences on the hook for answers.
  • 📻 Ambitious, no doubt.
  • 📻 Zigs and zags with surprises.

Against

  • 📻 Convolution is a badge of honor.
  • 📻 Complex, but not always sharp.
  • 📻 Runs a bit long over 90 minutes.

Ultrasound is part of our Tribeca 2021 coverage.

In many ways, Ultrasound embodies everything Tribeca programmers strive to highlight in their Midnighters. It’s structurally ambitious, favors the benefits of discombobulation, and approaches thrills from a core mania that clarifies its potency in the final minutes. Rob Schroeder’s directorial debut is in the camp of Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True or something quintessentially A24 adjacent—you know the vibe, whereby filmmakers voyage into unknowns as a source of beguiling allure. How do hypnotism, governmental misdeeds, confidential experiments, and a piercing frequency tie together in a coherent tale that tingles with “simulation reality” conspiracy theories? Brace yourself for maximum befuddlement and secretive moodiness, which some of y’all are going to adore.

Vincent Kartheiser stars as Ben, who we meet driving home from an unattended wedding, as his tire blows and leaves him stranded. Art (Bob Stephenson) owns the only home for miles, and he invites the stranger inside with a hospitable glee. Enter wife Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez), heavily poured drinks, and an unexpected proposition. But, little does Ben know, his weird night is about to get massively weirder by the minute—that’s where a nondescript research facility, psychiatrist Shannon (Breeda Wool), and the breaking of sanity in just about everyone come into focus.

As truths collide with gaslighting, Ultrasound becomes a maze of emotional abuse and empathy that can be difficult to parse between concurrent arcs. Ben and Cyndie find themselves soulfully tethered after their chance encounter. Shannon’s boss Dr. Conners (Tunde Adebimpe) brings the ethics of current studies into question. Senator Harris (Chris Gartin) is your resident shady politician with his own agenda—problems arise given the simultaneous but separated nature of these explorations. Conor Stechschulte’s screenplay dares challenge how seeing and believing contrast, a major stylistic factor as Schroeder splices characters in-and-out almost interchangeably. That’s with reason, but not without a distracting inability to cleanly prod our minds with suspense by way of confusion tactics that should be stimulating, not unanswerable.

I mention Come True because much like Burns’ abandonment of cinematic regulations as a response to making something unique, Ultrasound follows suit. I might prefer other more concisely confident forays into the vastness of mounting questions given the option. However, Schroeder’s still able to unify what appears to be non-conforming stories with some sensation of payoff. Actors succeed in playing characters stuck within this shifty-slippery ecosystem, whether that’s Breeda Wool pushing back against her oppressive higher-powers or Chelsea Lopez’s inexplicably in-synch tango with an overwhelmed and assertively concerned Vincent Kartheiser. It’s not a seamless conveyance of complex character development and yet the psychological thrills at times are unshakable, especially once all the abstract in-your-mind-or-not craziness solidifies.

There’s no world where Ultrasound is for everyone outside “Planet Elevated Horror,” but even then, it’s scant on frights besides social anxieties. Rob Schroeder and Conor Stechschulte use experimentation as an excuse to test audience wills, a brand of filmmaking that will undoubtedly lead to plenty of disgruntled responses about a tale of trauma that “makes no sense.” Those with patience and perseverance will argue otherwise, albeit still probably with a hint of reservation themselves. In any case? The more I sit with Ultrasound and it’s crossed wires, the more my frustrations cement—but at the same time, so does my tip of the hat as per Stephen Colbert for a movie that genuinely does not care if you’re along for the ride or left soggy in the rain.