Less a traditional science-fiction tale and more a hyper-realized exercise in exploring the outer reaches of gaslighting, Ultrasound, indie producer-turned-director Rob Schroeder’s feature debut, is a genuinely tense and freaky work that starts out making sense. Good luck holding on once questions about reality and mind experiments are introduced into the mix. “Mad Men’s” Vincent Kartheiser stars as Glen, who begins the film driving home in the rain when his tires apparently are deliberately destroyed. Stumbling through the rain, he soon finds a house where a middle-aged Arthur (Bob Stepheson) lives with his younger wife, Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez). The three begin drinking, and before too long, Arthur is offering Glen the chance to sleep with his wife, presumably filling in where he can no longer can.
In a seemingly unrelated storyline, Katie (Rainey Qualley) has moved to a new town to be closer to the married man she’s having an affair with, who just happens to be Senator Alex Harris (Chris Gartin), who is running for re-election and is none too happy to have her so close. Still another storyline introduces us to Dr. Conners (Tunde Adebimpe) and his research partner Shannon (Breeda Wool); she is beginning to have serious questions about the human trials being conducted, in which suggestions are planted in the minds of their subjects, which at first seem to help them but have transitioned into something more sinister.
Adapting his own graphic novel, screenwriter Conor Stechschulte slowly begins to connect these three stories and soon makes us realize that nothing any of the characters have experienced can be trusted or believed. Months after their fateful night, Arthur shows up at Glen’s house saying that Cyndi is pregnant, but when we see her later, her belly comes and goes in a flash, leaving us and poor Glen unsure what to believe. With Ultrasound, director Schroeder is great at building suspense, doubt, and abject fear as the truth is slowly revealed. What he’s not so great at doing is connecting the disjointed pieces of this puzzle-box movie into something that makes complete sense (I would have accepted partial sense at certain points), making the film somewhat frustrating as a mystery of the mind.
What I am sure of is that by the end of the film, Glen, Cyndi and Shannon are together and attempting to hash out the truth of what they have been through—and perhaps are still in the midst of; I’m still not 100 percent clear on that. The entire exercise does nicely evoke the spirit of 1970s paranoid thrillers, which sometimes dealt with mind control and some shady, secret branch of the government. These devices are in it, in all of their faded glory, and the end result mostly works, despite being a little fuzzy in places—a lot like memory, I suppose. The one thing the film did make me excited for was seeing what Schroeder does next.
The film will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday and Saturday, March 11-12, at 8:30pm both nights, with writer Conor Stechschulte for in-person Q&As.
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