For a prolific artist, a surge of creativity can often be synonymous with a dip in quality. Though not if you are Steven Soderbergh. He’s only continued to reinvent himself and forge ahead with new technology, subjects, and structural gambles. His latest film, Presence, is a haunting ghost tale wrapped in a nuanced family drama, and one of his most formally ambitious attempts yet. What if the camera, operated by Peter Andrews (aka Soderbergh), was the ghost? And every single shot in the film was a single take from this perspective? And, to further add to the self-imposed constraints, the ghost never leaves the house? From the very first shot, as we see the presence rapidly move through every room in the yet-to-be-sold empty house, laying the foundation for the horrors to take place, one senses Soderbergh is having a total blast with this concept. Reuniting after Kimi, David Koepp’s rollercoaster of a script is also one that doesn’t forget to flesh out its characters, making for a funny, disturbing, and nimble genre exercise that further proves Soderbergh is one of the most inventive directors to play the game.

After our ghostly introduction, Julia Fox is the first human we see, making a brief-but-humorous appearance as real estate agent Cece, showing the home to a family of four: Rebekah (Lucy Liu), her husband Chris (Chris Sullivan), and their children Chloe (Callina Liang) and Tyler (Eddie Maday). It’s soon apparent that Rebekah runs this family unit, swiftly making a decision to move ahead without much of any consultation from others. After each single take from the ghost’s perspective, Soderbergh does a hard cut to black––sometimes to cap off something shocking or peak at the dramatic arc of a conversation in which we learn more about the pain the family is going through. Two of Chloe’s friends died from suspected drug overdoses, causing them to make the move, upending Tyler’s promising swimming career (a resentment that will rear its head later). Meanwhile, Rebekah is going through some legal trouble at work that she’s not fully disclosing to her husband, who’s determined to bring his family back into harmonious alignment.

Despite the frequently roaming camera hinting at the supernatural, Soderbergh mostly keeps the film’s first half free of thrills, setting up the dramatic tensions of the family through wonderfully lived-in performances. While the nervous energy of Liu’s character is perhaps most entertaining, Sullivan and Liang are the stand-outs. Re-teaming with Soderbergh after The Knick, Sullivan’s demeanor may be imposing––particularly when placed in the fisheye-esque, 14mm-lensed frames free to swirl 360 degrees––yet Chris’ love for his family shines through and his interactions with each provide some of the film’s most touching and humorous moments. As Liang’s Chloe reckons with the guilt and loss of her friends, exuding immense feeling in the extended takes, Chris supplies a welcome fatherly warmth. His character is also not afraid to confront issues head-on and Koepp’s script articulates modulating the emotional tenors of familial relationships with admirable nuance. When the thrills do start the come––from books being moved to doors getting closed to shelves getting knocked off––this initial table-setting does wonders to make us fully invested in each of the character’s journeys.

As Soderbergh and Koepp further dive into themes of teen depression and suicidal thoughts, giving such weighty topics the proper breathing room in extended takes led by Liang, the full intentions of the ghostly presence begins to cohere, particularly when one of the “cool kids” at their new school, Ryan (West Mulholland, in a truly startling turn), starts to befriend the family with initially mysterious intentions. Weaving in skillfully employed, grounded visual effects, it’s rather shocking just how much the ghost, sight unseen, feels like another character in the movie. Despite some genre touchstones that may be more at home in The Conjuring franchise––including a medium with clairvoyance into the spiritual realm––Soderbergh is less interested in providing scares just for the sake of jolting his audience. By the deeply unsettling finale, in which a tale of family culminates in a moment of ultimate sacrifice, Soderbergh and Koepp show that human behavior is more frightening than anything a spirit could conjure.

Presence premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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