Sundance 2024 Film Review: Presence

Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Presence—his 36th feature, premiering at Sundance 35 years after sex, lies, and videotape, his first—opens with a handheld point-of-view shot, looking down from a second-story window onto a driveway. After a moment, the camera turns and moves rapidly, dizzyingly through the empty, darkened rooms of a 100-year-old home, upstairs and downstairs, returning, finally, to settle in a closet in the room where the journey began. On the one hand, this long opening shot provides a map of the film’s site, which will be restricted to the interior of the home, an intriguing formal constraint that is a further condition of the initial choice of camera perspective, one that will never change: the first-person POV shot. 

Soderbergh says he’s been adamant that such a condition would never work for narrative media (particularly for VR projects), insisting that the viewer will always require a reverse shot at some point, revealing the subject of the POV, the looker who the camera’s eye represents. The viewer will want an expression, an emotion in response to what’s seen. (Think of Jimmy Stewart’s reaction shots to his voyeuristic peeps at his neighbors in Rear Window.) But what’s already occurred to us, after the opening minutes of Presence, is that our feeling of disorientation, even as we’re becoming oriented to the house, is not ours: this feeling belongs to the camera, to the point of view, or character, it represents, that of the film’s titular presence. Its anxiety and confusion is palpable in the camera’s rapid panning and tracking, which is not jittery, so much as slithery, maybe slippery, a condition that sometimes made me worry for the cameraman—Soderbergh himself—as he goes flying up and down the old hardwood staircase. (He was wearing martial arts shoes for traction.)

In Presence, Soderbergh has made a rather novel ghost story. Novel not just for its technical constraints, but also in the sense that the ghost is not a ghost. It’s never referred to as anything but a presence. There are narrative reasons for this, a distinction that’s being made between a ghost, a thing that remains behind, a figure defined by the past, and a presence, an entity that inhabits, a thing of the present and maybe also of the future. While Soderbergh leans into several of the conventional capacities of a traditional ghost, not shying away from a few old-timey, actually unexpected, effects, the nature of the presence and particularly its identity contribute substantive mystery to the film, which is less a supernatural thriller than a family drama shaded by another definition of the title.

The presence in Presence, as it turns out, ends up cohabiting this old house with a deeply unsettled family, Lucy Liu and Chris Sullivan playing parents to Ty (Eddy Maday) and Chloe (Callina Liang). Ty is his mother’s favorite, a vigorous and aggressive high school swimmer with big ambitions. Chloe, headstrong in her own way, is suffering from the shock and grief of recently losing a close friend, a strange death with extenuating circumstances. As the family takes a tour with their realtor, the presence immediately develops an interest in Chloe, prompting a hint of awareness from the girl that sets in motion themes of haunting, sensitivity and the nearness of death. 

But it’s not just Chloe’s tragic experience that’s disrupting the family’s life. Mom and Dad are opposite characters, entangled in some kind of shady business that might destroy them, and Ty is prone to violent tirades, threatening that he will not let what he perceives as his sister’s problems derail his dreams. The sources of these destructive tensions are not unknown to the family, but they seem incapable of speaking about them without running up against the obstacle of each other’s certainty that they cannot, or should not, be the one to compromise or attempt change. Of course, given the film’s constraint, we can know nothing about anything without the presence as a witness, hanging about, taking interest, paying attention, perhaps trying to intervene, perhaps hoping to better understand itself in relation to these four human presences. In this sense, as a proxy for the audience and as our sole conduit of information and drama, the invisible entity, a seeming absence, becomes a metaphor for presence itself, a figure that offers something of an alternative to the lack of presence—concern, trust, transparency, care—that the family members are prepared to offer one another. Can the presence, as presence, effect change?

Liu, Liang, and Maday’s performances are uniformly strong, but Sullivan really stands out, particularly in a heartfelt scene with Liang, essentially a monologue, articulating the depth and breadth of a father’s love. And one should also praise Soderbergh’s performance as a cinematographer. His choreography with and around the actors is both elegant and affecting.

It should be noted that, while we may wonder about the nature of the presence, there is also a truly disturbing monster in the film, and fair questions have been raised about the detail with which that figure’s atrocities are shown. Again, given the formal constraints of the film, witnessing seems simply to be playing by the rules. Then again, the film’s genuine moral sensibility, constructed and played out through the ambiguities and actions of the presence, also seems to require it, and us, to see in order to know. And once we know, rather than suspect, whether and how to act—character, in a sense—becomes clear. 

At any rate, Presence is an intriguing and challenging new experiment by a master filmmaker, making it well worth a watch.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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