Presence (2024)

Presence Review

Presence (2024)

To make the film seem like what the ghost is seeing, Soderbergh takes long roving shots. But no matter how much the camera moves about, there isn’t a lot of paranormal activity.

“Presence,” a ghost story directed by Steven Soderbergh, takes place entirely within a beautiful renovated 100-year-old suburban house that as far as the characters can tell is occupied before they move in. The camera seems to be looking at things, peering out from second-floor windows and then coming downstairs to watch a frazzled real-estate agent show up, followed by the family of four she’s selling it to. In one unbroken wide-angle-lens shot, which careens from room to room as if it were on wheels, the camera becomes an impromptu house tour: We take in crisp mint-green walls; vintage woodwork (windows, doors, stairway); an old smoke-glass mirror and polished oak-board floors; an elegant sprawling kitchen with island. But this isn’t just real-estate porn. For the rest of “Presence,” Soderbergh’s roving bobbing-weaving voyeuristic camera’s-eye-view remains haunted really haunted. “Presence” may be the first ghost story in history where it turns out that Brian De Palma’s cinematographer was dead all along.

OK, I exaggerate somewhat. In “Presence,” we are indeed taking in everything from the point-of-view of the unseen spirit who has taken over this house (and yes it hovers and observes and always knows where things are happening). Yet in this case its cinematographer is none other than Soderbergh himself (shooting under his nom de plume Peter Andrews), who has been shooting many of his own films since “Traffic,” but you get the sense that part of what delighted him here was finding a way to be not just behind-the-camera but inside-the-camera literally.

So then you ask: If we are seeing everything the ghost sees, how can the ghost scare us? Good question, and though “Presence” settles into an authentic family drama whose intrigue-tentacles are just dark enough to keep pulling us along, it’s not a very scary movie not by the jump-scare standards of the multiplex. The ghost in “Presence,” however, does like to do some things; after watching for a while with apparent delight as books float up from a nearby shelf and deposit themselves on a desk (the levitation of a paperback appears to have been achieved with special effects borrowed from a teenage magician), or crash down onto the floor of a bedroom closet when an upper storage rack collapses, you start to think we might be headed for at least one good jumpy “Paranormal Activity” sequel.

But no. A presence is mostly only a presence in “Presence,” and there are long stretches where we almost forget it’s even there; it’s just that we’re watching what seems like a shoestring movie shot with an unusually nosy and flamboyant visual style. Each scene is staged by Soderberg so that it plays out in one long unbroken take before cutting to blackness at the end: stylish, percussive. Yet if he had made this film without employing his conceited camera-eye-as-ghost gimmick, he would more or less have made exactly the same picture.

Put aside paranormal activity; this family has more than its share of ghosts. The mother, Rebecca (Lucy Liu), is a tightly wound control freak who runs everything and plays favorites with her kids (she’s the one who decides, in five minutes, to buy the house because it’s in the district that allows her beloved teenage son to go to North High). She works at some oblique high-finance job where she’s done some mysterious illegal thing that could get them all into trouble. Tyler (Eddy Maday), the son, is nice on the surface but a mean-boy lout underneath, and his sister Chloe (Callina Liang) is falling into a depression; not just because she’s entered the teen-blues tunnel of doom her best friend Nadia died of a drug overdose a few months earlier; she was the second girl at school to die that way. Chloe is the only one in the family who can feel the ghost’s presence, and Soderbergh doesn’t take long to let us know why that is: The ghost isn’t there to haunt; it’s there to protect.

What makes Soderbergh’s “little films” so brash and inventive and superior to what so many directors could just toss off seems like it might be that they exist for no other reason than that he can tinker with them. Not such a bad art or moviemaking philosophy, though he tends to throw them together in a way that “works” (they carry you along) but leaves no impression. It’s as if he were making up puzzle pieces while solving the puzzle.

This one has a script by David Koepp, who wrote Soderbergh’s better movie “Kimi” (2022). The ghost idea in “Presence” is neither major scares nor awesome revelations; instead it’s a foregrounded backdrop. The film finds its heart of darkness in the human world, especially when Chloe gets sucked into a sexualized friendship with Tyler’s buddy, played by West Mullholland with deceptive masochistic creepiness. He’s a very good young actor in fact, all the acting in “Presence” is ace. Callina Liang fills out Chloe’s despair, Lucy Liu makes Rebecca a duplicitous troublemaker who keeps daring you to look beneath the scheming and I especially liked Chris Sullivan, who plays the beleaguered dad like a straitlaced Louis CK (he still thinks he can get his kids to stop swearing) with a falling-apart-at-the-seams desperation that speaks to an age when families don’t quite talk.

“Presence,” in its showy angst, winks at topicality just as it winks at a lot of other things (like things that go bump in the night or the rise of teenage mental illness or serial killers). But it’s only flirting with them. You want more movie than this one adds up to; what it adds up to is another half-diverting, half-satisfying Soderbergh bauble, this time he’s the ghost in the machine.

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