Sundance 2024 Review: PRESENCE, Steven Soderbergh's Haunted House Movie

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2024 Review: PRESENCE, Steven Soderbergh's Haunted House Movie

A minor work from a major filmmaker, Presence is Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh’s first official foray into supernatural horror.

Shot primarily in a single, standalone set over less than two weeks and a limited shooting schedule, Presence doesn’t reinvent or reimagine tropes associated with haunted house or supernatural ghost stories. Far from it.

What Presence does do — in Soderbergh’s approach to formal experimentation within predetermined boundaries (e.g., genre, setting, and so forth) — it does far better and far more effectively than the vast majority of filmmakers currently writing and directing within the horror space could achieve within the same preset parameters.

Working from a seemingly simple, straightforward script written by David Koepp (The War of the Worlds, Stir of Echoes, Mission: Impossible), Soderbergh removes any doubt about how he’ll choose to handle the unseen “presence” from the get-go, turning the camera, typically understood as an objective, third-person point-of-view, into the first-person point-of-view of an unseen, ghostlike apparition, flitting from room to room, sweeping up and down stairs, and observing the conversation between a real estate broker (Julia Fox) and a financially successful, middle-aged couple, Rebecca (Lucy Liu) and Chris Payne (Chris Sullivan), that leads to the purchase of the century-old home and a presumed fresh start.

A fresh start is what their youngest daughter, Chloe (Callina Liang), desperately needs after the apparent suicide or accidental overdose of one of her high-school friends. For their son, Tyler (Eddie Maday), a swimming star with a chance at a college scholarship, their new home means he can attend a feeder school for college swimmers.

Opposites in temperament and world views, Chloe and Tyler interact with each other on an as-needed basis, forcing their parents to take sides (Rebecca with Tyler, Chris with Chloe), in turn creating a deeply unhealthy dynamic that suggests a fracturing of the family unit isn’t too far off.

There’s more, of course. Koepp’s script interweaves a subplot involving potential illegalities on Rebecca’s part that could lead to lawsuits or worse. And all along, the ghostly “presence,” lingers in observation mode, only pulling away or even hiding when an interaction between members of the Payne family becomes overly fractious or even too intimate for it to bear or witness.

It’s also playful or mischievous, moving Chloe’s books from her bed to her desk while she showers. Rarely, however, does it appear as a threat, except when it senses physical or emotional danger of some kind, especially where Chloe is concerned.

In classic haunted house fashion, Presence dabbles in spirit mediums and their fictional relatives, spirit sensitives, those among the living who, like Chloe, have experienced a recent traumatic event, making them vulnerable or open to the supernatural. It’s not clear, however, what the presence represents: Is it a threat, a protector, or something else altogether? An answer to that question eventually reveals itself, but to say more would mean venturing into potential spoiler territory best experienced first-hand by an audience.

Throughout, the presence makes itself felt through Soderbergh’s constantly moving, roving camera, becoming — to borrow an oft-used phrase — a character in and of itself, an unwilling fifth member to the drama unfolding within the confines of the two-floor structure that doubles as both home and (possibly) prison. And like each character in the film, the presence ultimately has to make a choice whether to reveal itself and take action or embrace a potentially dangerous passivity.

Buoyed by a uniformly strong cast, a script combining psychological realism with occasional stabs of surrealism, and, as always, Soderbergh’s precise, intelligent direction, Presence offers more than its fair share of visual and auditory pleasures. Scares, however, are in short supply, not, as some might imagine, as a result of script or directorial issues, but by conscious decision. Atmosphere, mood, and overall vibes obviously mattered more to Koepp and Soderbergh and in that respect, restraint defined by minimalism, they succeed without hesitation, reservation, or qualification.

Presence premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Neon will release Presence later this year.

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Callina LiangChris SullivanDavid KoeppEddie MadayLucy LiuPresenceSteven Soderbergh

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