Presence: this suburban ghost story is one of Steven Soderbergh’s best go-for-broke experiments yet

Steven Soderbergh’s haunted house movie, shown entirely from the perspective of a ghostly guardian, has a tense and superbly acted family drama at its heart.

25 January 2024

By Nicolas Rapold

Callina Liang as Chloe in Presence (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

As exciting as it is to discover new talent at Sundance, this year it was a pure pleasure to see Class of ’89 wunderkind Steven Soderbergh back and operating at the top of his game with an elegantly conceived premise. “Operating” is the key word here, because Soderbergh shoots his own films under a pseudonym, and here that means first-person camerawork for the entirety of the picture. And it’s no gimmick: Presence is a stunning ghost story with superbly acted family drama to provide the heart which busier, flashier supernatural thrillers lack. 

The point of view is set from the opening shot, which looks down from a second-floor window like a dog awaiting a family’s return. The camera glides through the empty house to observe a real estate agent (Julia Fox) and her eager clients, a couple with a teenage daughter and son. As the peering, eye-level viewpoint persists from scene to long-take scene, we glean what it takes the family longer to understand: this house is already inhabited, and our viewpoint belongs to some sort of… presence. (An amusing coincidence: in Wikipedia’s typically strained verbiage, Soderbergh is described as “a notable presence in the film industry.”) 

Once the family moves in, we notice Chloe (Callina Liang) clocking that something is in the room with her. The high schooler is somewhat withdrawn after the death of a friend, and while the sensitive grief-stricken teenager is a bit of a horror trope, Soderbergh and screenwriter David Koepp quickly flesh out richly thorny family dynamics, observed both glancingly and more directly. Breadwinner mum (Lucy Liu) is involved in some chicanery and frustratingly favours Chloe’s arrogant brother, Tyler (Eddy Maday). Dad (Chris Sullivan) gently tries to keep everyone calm and grounded, even as he’s losing confidence in the marriage. The film’s assorted family dramas have been compared to a series of short plays, and it’s a testament to the ensemble that one forgets the entire film is basically housebound. 

Since the presence is always, well, present as our point of view, the film does not rely on the intermittent suspense of when it will appear or make itself known, as in many other ghost stories. It’s mostly a curious observer, a visual narrator privy to the family members keeping secrets from one another, and increasingly sympathetic to and protective of Chloe. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) came to mind as a recent cousin to this narrative gambit, though Soderbergh is blessedly less arty in his ambition, which in turn leaves one free to independently ponder the implications of Presence. When Chloe starts hooking up with her brother’s increasingly sketchy friend (West Mulholland), her ghostly guardian grows palpably more anxious, which introduces novel tensions about whether it’ll take action and break the paranormal fourth wall (Soderbergh’s sustained technique is a sure bet to appear future film studies syllabuses). 

He shoots on a wide-angle 14mm lens that often fits the entire room into the frame (giving the actors an almost stage-like expanse to block out). But rather than a boxed-in surveillance quality, one feels a tense reserve in the camera position – a supernatural handwringing as different aspects of the family’s life seem ready to crumble. There are echoes of Soderbergh’s recent dramatic series, Full Circle (2023), in a family grappling with otherworldly influences and corruption, though this one is outwardly more ordinary. Chloe’s afternoon trysts become a source of the ghost’s concern, and for good reason, as becomes apparent. If there’s a rough edge in Koepp’s screenplay – he also wrote Soderbergh’s note-perfect surveillance thriller Kimi (2022) – it’s in the appalling evil that one of the characters proves casually capable of when he thinks no one is watching. 

Perhaps genre fans who have floated through more haunted and nanny-cammed suburban houses will tire more rapidly of Presence, but there’s expressive nuance in Soderbergh’s hovering camerawork (and one could speculate that the first-person filmmaking taps into tensions dating back to his Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) in the way it plays with how distance and intimacy vie in the camera’s eye). And Liang’s sharp-eyed teenager (amazingly, the actress’s first film in release) is especially poignant as she tries to stake out her place in the world and decide what – if anything – to do about the house’s watchful presence. But she’s matched by what’s effectively a performance, too, by Soderbergh himself, in one of his best go-for-broke experiments yet. 

Other things to explore

reviews

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads

By Roger Luckhurst

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads
reviews

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic

By Arjun Sajip

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic
reviews

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama

By Tom Charity

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama