You can always count on Tribeca Film Festival to feature a few true weirdos. Movies that challenge, expand, or downright destroy the ideas we have of genre conventions. This year, one of those films is Ultrasound. The feature directorial debut of Rob Schroeder, Ultrasound pushes storytelling to its limits, culminating in a slow-burn psychological thriller that will continue to surprise you until its last moments. But do Schroeder and Co. go too far? Does Ultrasound push the plot so hard that it ends up breaking? Read on to find out.
AN UNRELIABLE REALITY
Our story begins with Glen, an everyday schlub on his way back home from his friend’s wedding. When Glen‘s car breaks down, he’s forced to walk to a lonely house and ask to use a phone. Who he finds there are Arthur and Cyndi, a thoroughly unhappy couple that, nevertheless, welcome Glen to stay with them until he can get his car fixed. What begins as a fairly regular, if awkward, encounter between strangers takes a surprising turn when Arthur asks Glen to sleep with his wife. A little drunk, Glen agrees, figuring that he’ll never see Cyndi again. But what Glen doesn’t realize is that he’s not just agreeing to have a tryst with a married woman. He’s agreeing to have his life changed forever, in a way he couldn’t start to understand.
What I’ve just described to you covers only about the first ten minutes of Ultrasound, but honestly, to give away more than that comes with the risk of spoiling some of the surprise. I’ll only say here that reality is thin in this film. What you think you’re watching one moment could be completely different the next, then reaffirmed as reality later. But despite the shifts in truth this movie goes through, Schroeder and screenwriter Conor Stechschulte manage to keep the story flowing in a followable way. You might feel lost as to what’s going on, but never so much that it takes you out of the story of the film. And when the end finally does come around, you’ll find satisfactory (and unsettling) answers to your questions.
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Unfortunately, the characters that populate this story aren’t quite as satisfying. It’s not so much that the actors portraying them don’t give good performances, just that all the mystery leaves little room for getting to know them. For example, Chelsea Lopez has some excellent moments as Cyndi, who goes through serious trauma in the course of the story. However, there are moments when it’s not clear how much Cyndi knows about the horrible secrets in the movie, so there are a few times you’re left wondering whether or not she’s in on it.
That’s not to say that every character’s arc feels lacking. In particular, Breeda Wool’s character Shannon, who plays a medical specialist curiously connected to Glen and Cyndi, is the center of a great B-plot to the film, one that will come crashing into Glen and Cyndi‘s arc in the movie’s mind-blowing finale. Part of the success of Shannon comes from the fact that we’re introduced to her in a trustworthy, real setting that stays true the entire movie. This isn’t the case for Glen, Arthur, or Cyndi, so not only are we left to wonder what’s happening to them, but who they are in the first place. On the subject of characters, Ultrasound is a rare exception for high-concept sci-fi stories. Where most over-explain what’s going on, Ultrasound could have used more clarification, especially when it came to its characters.
FEARS FOR YOUR EARS
And yet, Ultrasound is still a highly engaging watch. You might not understand the characters entirely, but when shit gets spooky, you will absolutely be fearing for their lives. Ultrasound is an unsettling, immersive experience, and a lot of that comes down to the absolutely brilliant sound design. Composer Zak Engel deftly crafts a synthesized soundtrack that hangs behind the action of the characters, lurking like an electric shadow in even the brightest of scenes. And the sound department of Bobb Barito, Scott Esterly, and Mark Sutton texturize those scenes with an array of reality-shifting sound effects. Metallic whines and almost vocal static go a long way in establishing the unreliable nature of what we’re watching. If you listen for too long, you might worry, your own reality might start to get a little fuzzy.
“You might feel lost as to what’s going on, but never so much that it takes you out of the story of the film. And when the end finally does come around, you’ll find satisfactory (and unsettling) answers to your questions.”
If brain-scrambling sci-fi thrillers are your thing, I highly recommend Ultrasound. It’s a movie that will leave you feeling like your consciousness has been expanded and your notions of reality are shattered. But even if you’re not into those types of films, if you like your characters and plots a bit more clear throughout, I’d still recommend seeing this movie, if only to appreciate the incredible sound design. That’s a field in moviemaking that gets forgotten far too often, but in Ultrasound, it is simply unforgettable.
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