I once had a professor who loved to tell stories about Tom Waits. The only one that stuck with me was about Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. Apparently when Waits was agonizing over whether he should abandon a record label, Brennan remarked, “Who needs money when you have complete freedom?” I don’t know whether the quote is true — my professor had a way of using culture to justify his questionable lifestyle choices — but the sentiment is useful when thinking about Ultrasonic, the new no-budget thriller from director Rohit Colin Rao. Made without much money, Rao squanders his freedom by producing something so bland it’s almost bizarre.
Rao has more control over his work than the typical filmmaker. In addition to directing, Rao also co-wrote, shot, and edited Ultrasonic. He even composed the score. Despite all this power, Rao’s film is wholly inert, as if he’s too timid for anything bold or daring. His film’s hero reflects this viewpoint. Silas Gordon Brigham stars as Simon, a low-key musician and piano instructor who begins to hear a strange noise. The noise becomes a distraction, causing him to alienate his wife Ruth (Cate Buscher). Simon then seeks help from Ruth’s brother Jonas (Sam Repshas), a delusional conspiracy theorist.
Rao’s achievement is purely financial: made for a slim $20,000, Ultrasonic looks polished and professional. Unfortunately, his success begins and ends there, as the film neither evokes paranoia nor dread. Its slogging pace is earnest, but there is literally no shift in tone once Simon begins to hear the sound (he describes the noise, but we never hear it). Simon does not treat his problem with urgency, so audience disinterest soon follows. Jonas makes connections between the sound and a government surveillance program, but thanks to simple confirmation bias, his ideas do not hold up against the most basic scrutiny.
Ultrasonic is shot in and around the District of Columbia, and Rao tries to make good use of his hometown location. Simon and Jonas ride the DC metro system, for example, to get a census of where the sound is loudest. Jonas’s theory is that the government is using mind control where the poor people live, and he stratifies the city by quadrant. He says the “nice” neighborhoods are in Northwest DC and the not so nice ones are in Southeast, when geography is much more complex than that. This kind of lazy delineation only makes Jonas seem more half-baked, calling into question why Simon bothers listening to him. By the time Rao wraps it all up, the suspension of disbelief is lost.
The simple way to improve Ultrasonic would be to have a stretch where the audience hears the sound Simon does. It could actually add tension, and reflect Simon’s rapidly-deteriorating sanity. When a character is potentially losing his mind, a reliable way to immerse viewers is to shoot from the character’s perspective. Instead, we have long scenes in which Simon and Jonas ride public transit and have patient conversations with their indoor voices. There is little doubt Rao starts with an intriguing premise. He just lacks the necessary imagination to escalate it.