‘Presence’ Review — Steven Soderbergh’s Ghost Story Is an Inventive Delight

‘Presence’ Review — Steven Soderbergh’s Ghost Story Is an Inventive Delight

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Steven Soderbergh takes on the haunted house film in Presence, challenging himself and experimenting with storytelling.
  • Presence explores a family’s dynamics through the perspective of a presence in their house, testing the potential of the genre.
  • Soderbergh and screenwriter David Koepp create a compelling, stripped-down thriller that touches on deeper themes while keeping tension within one location.


Ever since his debut, 1989’s Sundance smash sex, lies, and videotape, director Steven Soderbergh has been an innovator. He always finds a way to challenge himself, as well as the form and function of whatever genre he’s taking on. Whether it’s creating a no-budget surrealist comedy like Schizopolis or commanding some of the biggest stars in cinema with Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh is always pushing himself and testing out new ways to tell a story.

Presence, Soderbergh’s latest experimentation, has the director taking on the haunted house film, while also addressing his own issues with VR storytelling—in a way. Told from the perspective of a “presence” in a house, Soderbergh explores this type of horror story in a way that only he can, playing with the structure of similar films, screwing with our expectations for this type of film, and once more, testing himself while showing the untapped potential in the genre.

Presence (2024)

Showcases a suburban house inhabited by an mysterious entity.

Release Date
January 19, 2024

Director
Steven Soderbergh

Runtime
85 minutes


What Is ‘Presence’ About?

Presence begins with the camera navigating through an empty house—Soderbergh setting the scene before his players make their entrance. Soon after, a family is given a tour of the house, and quickly decide to snatch it up before someone else gets the chance. Soderbergh, working with a script by his Kimi collaborator David Koepp, quickly sets up the dynamics of this family. The mother, Rebecca (Lucy Liu), clearly has a favorite child in Tyler (Eddy Maday), a swimmer who is almost always a douchebag, and Rebecca has made it known that she’s probably done something illegal to get her son where he is today. Meanwhile, the father, Chris (Chris Sullivan), is worried about his wife and her favoritism, and is more concerned with their daughter, Chloe (Callina Liang), who has recently lost a friend due to an overdose.

From the first time the family walks into the house, Chloe can sense a presence there that the rest of the family can’t. What makes Presence so formally interesting is that Soderbergh shows this family from the perspective of the eponymous presence. He shows us this family in small, unedited scenes, and his camera is almost always at a distance from everyone—in an approach that reminds of Paranormal Activity by way of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, in a way. The presence seemingly can’t leave the house, and often retreats to Chloe’s bedroom, where it can watch over her in a way that her family obviously can’t, especially once she starts bringing over Tyler’s friend Ryan (West Mulholland) without Tyler knowing.

‘Presence’ Has Steven Soderbergh and David Koepp Continuing to Push Themselves

For both Soderbergh and Koepp, Presence has these filmmakers testing themselves. During the premiere at Sundance, Soderbergh noted his frustration with VR as a narrative device, and Koepp’s script was the only way he could see telling a first-person perspective story in away that works. Presence doesn’t manage to feel like one of the more overt experimentations in Soderbergh’s oeuvre, like Bubble or Full Frontal, but rather, one of his more stripped-down investigations of genre, like the aforementioned Kimi or Haywire. Soderbergh isn’t losing story for the same of playing around with ideas, and finds a solid middle-ground here.

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‘KIMI’ Review: Zoë Kravitz Takes on Tech in Steven Soderbergh’s Fantastic Thriller Homage to ‘The Conversation’ and ‘Home Alone’

“KIMI, play ‘Sabotage.'”

Meanwhile, Koepp’s screenplay for both Presence and 2022’s Kimi, feels like a way for the blockbuster screenwriter to test himself and get back to his more restrained roots. It’s easy to see how Presence could’ve just started as a screenwriting exercise, but ends up becoming quite an effective bare-bones thriller. Koepp knows how to make a compelling, edge-of-your-seat story from the interior of a home, with films like Panic Room, Zathura, and Kimi, and proves once again that narrowing the tension into one location can work beautifully.

Together, the combined talents of Soderbergh and Koepp turn Presence into more than just a demonstration for these two artists. While it is in no way the focus of Presence, Soderbergh and Koepp get to discuss elements of the afterlife, religion, and bigger questions that they usually doesn’t touch on in their films. It’s not a major part of the narrative, but it adds a bit of heft to the restraint of this film.

‘Presence’s Great Cast Shows Us the Horrors Hidden in Suburban Life

A dark theater with a screen lit up that reads Sundance Film Festival 2024.
Image via Sundance

In a way, Soderbergh turns Presence into a series of miniature plays, as every time we revisit this family, the camera never cuts, allowing the actors to fully live in the moment of the scene. The uncertainty of what Rebecca has done for her son looms over every scene Liu in, while Sullivan is great as the sympathetic father who has just about had enough of his family. Maday’s Tyler at first seems like a one-note villain, but as his story unfurls, his character may just become the most interesting member of this family. But it’s Liang as Chloe that is the true star here, as she’s overcome with loss and doesn’t find the help she needs within her family. Presence is a film that often asks its actors to act out their normal lives and all the mundanity that includes, but Liang manages to make this captivating at every step. Soderbergh and Koepp shows the secrets that are seemingly inherent in the so-called perfection of suburban life, but not in an overt, irritating way, like most presentations of this idea can be.

Soderbergh and Koepp first made a major splash into the film industry 35 years ago, and after all these years, Presence shows they’re just as exciting and intriguing as storytellers as they have ever been. Soderbergh’s ability to continually push boundaries and attempt to think outside the box in terms of normal genre tropes makes every film an expansion on himself and film in general. After decades of massive hits, between Presence and Kimi, Koepp shows that some of his best work is done when he restricts and tests himself. Presence likely won’t go down as one of the director’s greatest works, but it does serve as another expansion of his considerable catalogue that makes him one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.

Presence Sundance Film Festival 2024 Image

Presence (2024)

‘Presence’ shows that Steven Soderbergh and David Koepp both thrive in their formal experimentations and exploring the tropes of various genres.

Pros

  • Steven Soderbergh gives us a ghost story unlike we’ve ever seen before.
  • Presence’s excellent cast creates a domestic horror story that leaves you on the edge of your seat.
Cons

  • Soderbergh and Koepp could’ve dove a bit deeper into their discussion of the afterlife and larger concepts.

Presence had its World Premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.



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