A particular type of mind-bending genre pulp seems to arise from the wounded psyche of a freshman filmmaker. Often, these transfixing head-trips feel constructed to play better on repeat viewings by design — one thinks of Christopher Nolan’s “Following,” or Shane Carruth’s close to impenetrable “Primer.” As part of Tribeca’s Midnight Movie selection, Rob Schroeder’s hypnotic debut “Ultrasound,” falls into this category. It is far from a flawless first feature, but it’s the rare kind that becomes more enjoyable the farther into the narrative you let yourself fall.
Beginning with a dreary, dark, and rainy night sequence veiling the movie’s true agenda, Glen (“Mad Men’s” Vincent Kartheiser) has his trip home from a friend’s wedding cut short after driving over a bunch of nails lining the middle of the road. 30-40 miles from the nearest motel or mechanic, he desperately knocks on the door of a strange couple’s isolated wilderness home. Teetering on creepy cordial in offering their aid, husband, and wife — Arthur & Cyndi (Bob Stephenson, Chelsea Lopez) — soon propose a questionable cuck-like situation, making Glen quite uncomfortable. Things get stranger from there. “He’d still be sleeping on the couch even if you weren’t here,” Cyndi suggests.
Switching gears completely following the title card, “Ultrasound’s” plot is difficult to describe without over-explaining away what makes its warped esotericism so appealing (but, from the title, you can probably gather it involves pregnancy). Resolutely evasive by design, revealing the film’s concept upfront could be compared to ruining the twist of a great “Twilight Zone” episode; but, like “Eye of the Beholder,” some cryptic, sci-fi-tinged medical research center soon becomes a central story thread that directly connects to Glen, Arthur, and Cyndi.
What can safely be revealed is the science’s purported end goal: “treat the physical via the psychological.” Shannon (Breeda Wool), one of the facility’s specialists, turns into the movie’s main focus once this plot angle is introduced. After audiences are inside her head, the flick veers into “Unsane” territory, Shannon increasingly suspicious that their seemingly scripted, psychological experiments are not what they seem. Growing more anxious as she learns the true nature of the treatments, the researcher starts questioning whether their tactics secretly encode a kind of mental manipulation.
Kartheiser’s character never entirely leaves the narrative. Still, given how leisurely the film establishes him as the lead character in the opening, the storytelling can feel uneven and ill-focused until the film’s halfway point. Concurrently, much of his character’s backstory is intentionally withheld but unquestionably calculated. There is also the (perhaps unavoidable) sci-fi twist problem of pulling the rug out from underneath your audience, and, by extension, key conflicts viewers have attached themselves to; much of the dramatic, dire situation(s) established early in the film feel fairly irrelevant by the last act, which is inevitably irksome.
Written by cartoonist Conor Stechschulte and based on his graphic novel “Generous Bosom,” “Ultrasound’s” plotting threads take time to gel and settle in. Still, its overall use of sound and style creates a hauntingly disorienting atmosphere right from the outset. Utilizing what one might describe as editing parlor tricks (not a negative critique), the film’s audio and optics serve as a kind of cognitive metronome. Shifting from compact staging to wide-angle shots when the film expands into industrial sci-fi territory, almost every technique — from each mindful dissolve to alterations in pitch frequency — meld both form and function. One imagines the movie’s structural hiccups might be attributed to a change in medium; wisely, Schroeder consistently taps into ideas inherent to filmmaking when adapting Stechschulte’s comic. Playing catch-up is part of the appeal as the uncanny puzzle box elements begin coming together in culminating ‘Aha!’ moments.
Thoroughly transfixing but requiring patience from its audience, “Ultrasound” artistically evolves from a spooky “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things”-esque elliptical experiment into something resembling a Sundance version of “Shock Corridor,” operating on several wavelengths through close to low-budget Nolan level mesmerism. The movie magic isn’t always apparent until a pair of images flash side by side in viewer’s minds, often well after seeds have been planted, but like the blockbuster artist’s more ambitious brain-twisters (raise your hand if you’re a fellow “Tenet” fan) the narrative ideas are sure to be supportively enriched by every rewatch. [B-]