Throughout his illustrious career, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has never been one to rest on his laurels. Whether it’s casting an adult film star as the lead in The Girlfriend Experience, shooting on an iPhone for Unsane and High Flying Bird, or ambitiously tracking the spread of a virus in Contagion, Soderbergh is known for experimenting as much as possible. For his latest, Presence (2024), the gimmick is one that horror fans are sure to get a kick out of- putting the audience through the eyes of a ghost. Whereas it may not be the all-out scarefest some squeamish moviegoers have reported, it’s a uniquely haunting film that gets a lot of mileage out of its perspective.
Presence (2024) follows the Payne family. Tensions run high between Rebecca (Lucy Liu) and Chris (Chris Sullivan) due to the former’s not-so-legal business dealings. Despite this, they put on a happy face as they move into a new home with their son Tyler (Eddy Maday) and daughter Chloe (Callina Liang). As they settle in, Tyler tries hard to impress his popular new friend (West Mulholland) while Callina struggles to overcome the grief of losing her best friend, Nadia, to a freak drug overdose. Meanwhile, an unknown spirit watches their every move.
Soderbergh’s cinematography, under the name Peter Andrews, is inspired. Playing out in a series of long one-rs broken only by jarring cuts to black, the camera glides around the home, moving with an omniscient, detached gaze. The low light levels and lack of a showy color grade give the uncomfortable sense that what we’re viewing is reality, like some unearthed footage from a poltergeist documentarian. Moreover, the camera, by the necessity of the concept, becomes the essential character of Presence (2024).
When a realtor, played by Julia Fox, moves the family in, it nervously shies away, viewing the family from afar. Yet, the more it settles in the more it inches closer to them. Unbearable anxiety comes from when and how this “presence” will get involved. When it does, be it in something as subtle as blowing air into Callina Liang, Presence (2024) sends shivers down the spine.
If Steven Soderbergh’s formal experiment proves successful, then David Koepp’s screenplay is only halfway there. On a basic story level, Presence (2024) sings. The family drama compels due to the messy, passive-aggressive dynamics between them. Likewise, the mystery of who we’re actually in the perspective of intrigues, all signs pointing to Chloe’s deceased friend Nadia. Unfortunately, Koepp’s dialogue is far too on the nose for the docu-style way it’s shot. The Jurassic Park scribe has the characters speak their feelings rather than show them. Sometimes, this can work. However, it threatens to undercut the performances or the subtlety of the specter’s involvement in the story. To put it in perspective, there’s a literal exclamation of “well that happened” after said spirit makes itself known in a bombastic way.
For any faults of the script, the performers pick up the slack. Lucy Liu continues to prove herself one of the most underutilized assets in Hollywood, playing a mother who willfully ignores the issues piling up in her family. An impressive Chris Sullivan sharply conveys the pain of trying to hold together the Paynes on his own. Eddy Maday displays promise, playing the role of Tyler with angst and resentment, often towards his sister. Speaking of, Callina Liang gives a star-making turn, expertly relaying the turmoil of trying to be a normal teenager in the face of unbearable grief. West Mulholland easily gives the standout performance, though. His charismatic, popular kid reveals layers of something pitch black that first rears its head in subtle manipulation before transforming into pure wickedness.
These performers carry Presence (2024)through its intentional slow burn. The more the film goes on, the more the layers peel back, and the real darkness at the heart of its soul reveals itself in an unsettling manner. The final moments of the film fulfill the promise of its concept, providing a satisfying answer to the central mystery, completing the family’s character arcs, and even tossing in a breathless final reveal that re-contextualizes the entire film.
Presence (2024) may not cause audiences to flee out of fear. Ultimately, however, what it does is so much more interesting. Steven Soderbergh employs visual experimentation for a one-of-a-kind ghost story whose stars and well-considered narrative shape into a winner. For all its flaws in dialogue, the effect of its approach makes it a welcome refresh for a well-trodden subgenre of horror.
Presence (2024) was screened as a part of Sundance 2024 and will be distributed by NEON.
Steven Soderbergh employs visual experimentation for a one-of-a-kind ghost story whose stars and well-considered narrative shape into a winner. For all its flaws in dialogue, the effect of its approach makes it a welcome refresh for a well-trodden subgenre of horror.