Steven Soderbergh’s Presence

Callina Liang in Steven Soderbergh’s Presence (2024)

“By some measure, it’s the simplest idea I’ve ever had,” Steven Soderbergh tells Amy Taubin at Filmmaker. Presence is a ghost story told from the point of view of the ghost, which is simple enough, but what Soderbergh is talking about specifically here is his own unseen presence in the film as the director, cinematographer, and camera operator. The audience sees through his eye, the ethereal embodiment of something caught between being and nonbeing.

The presence is a character with an arc. “I wanted you to see it learn how to be,” says Soderbergh. “And as it starts to learn, it can anticipate, and it’s not lagging as much as it does at the beginning. All that was really fun to play with.”

What it sees—and explores—in the beginning is a newly renovated hundred-year-old, two-story house. A realtor (Julia Fox) ushers in a family of four, and within minutes, Rebekah (Lucy Liu), the mom whose word is final, announces that they’ll buy the house. Rebekah works hard and drinks hard, and she dotes on her son, Tyler (Eddy Maday), a competitive swimmer with a nasty streak. Chris (Chris Sullivan), the dad, has to remind Rebekah that she has two kids, the other being Chloe (Calliana Liana), who is mourning the recent loss of a friend to an overdose. Chloe is also the first—and for a good while, the only—family member to sense an otherworldly presence in the house.

David Koepp, who wrote the screenplays for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993), David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002), and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), wrote Presence, working from Soderbergh’s outline. Their first collaboration was Kimi (2022), which Taubin calls “a perfect movie. I’m not sure this one is perfect; that it is emotionally and formally thrilling is without doubt.” She tells Soderbergh that “Presence is like if Michael Snow had decided to remake The Shining in a small suburban house.”

For Rolling Stone’s David Fear, Presence plays like “a family therapy session filtered through a horror movie in a way that practically makes the spooky bits superfluous.” According to Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr., distributor Neon picked it up at Sundance on Tuesday, and the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney suggests that Presence will be “an enormously satisfying watch for haunted house movie fans, favoring sustained anxiety over big scares and practical effects over digital trickery.”

“Casting us as ghostly spectators who are voyeuristically enjoying—and desperate to intervene in—the plight of a dysfunctional family,” writes Nick Schager at the Daily Beast, “the director’s latest is a distinctly cool, dynamic riff on Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom via The Haunting, with a dash of Paranormal Activity sprinkled around its edges.” In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang observes that Soderbergh “remains American independent cinema’s great problem solver, someone who approaches each movie as a logistical puzzle and sees aesthetic and financial limitations as creative enablers rather than deterrents.”

The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee finds that “the delicately dropped crumbs of mystery” lead to “a surprisingly rote reveal,” and back at Filmmaker, Vadim Rizov writes that as “a drama, Presence doesn’t entirely fire, building to an extended, unpleasant scene unveiling the fairly nonsensical grand villain (this is definitely a movie for the fentanyl moment), but that doesn’t make its formal questions any less interesting to think about.” At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri calls Presence “an art film that also works as a spellbinding horror film, and it might be the best thing Soderbergh has done in ages.”

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