Sundance Review: ‘Presence’

Steven Soderbergh Tense Slow Burn Ghost Story Leaves An Impression

In the opening moments of Steven Soderbergh’s Presence, his camera swoops and swirls throughout an empty, multi-tiered home in an idyllic suburb. While Soderbergh’s style is always distinguished, more so than a lot of other directors with no fingerprint at all, here his lens is an actual presence, a supernatural force lurking in some places, observing carefully in others. We’re trained to consider all such entities to be menacing, but Soderbergh plays his true intentions close to the vest in this deliberately-paced film about a new family that moves into the haunted home.

Once again working with frequent collaborator in screenwriter David Koepp, Soderbergh crafts a lean ghost story that isn’t focused on scares, but in the building of tension among a troubled family in a confined space. To be charitable, it takes some time to get going properly, and you wish there was a bit more of the dark wit shown in the initial moments. Julia Fox has a small role as a realtor who, when we first meet her, has just arrived seconds before the potential clients arrive to see the house. “Oh I always arrive early”, she lies almost immediately. Lucy Liu is the family matriarch, Rebekah, a no-nonsense type used to getting her way. She already knows she wants this house before anybody else can look at it. Her husband, Chris, played by Chris Sullivan, isn’t sold but he knows better than to push the issue. Rebekah sees the place as being in the perfect school district for her favorite child, Tyler (Eddy Maday), a competitive swimmer who would benefit from it. Their daughter Chloe (Callina Liang) is sullen and quiet, still grieving from the recent deaths of two friends by what we are led to believe are accidental overdoses. Tyler has no problem rubbing it in Chloe’s face, while Chris is worried she could go down the same path.

Soderbergh establishes the contours of this family dynamic easily with no fuss, but Presence ironically takes its time making an impression. We learn precious little about their background; all of the details we need are dished out conservatively as they interact. It becomes clear that Chris and Rebekah are going through some marital discord, and that Rebekah has begun focusing all of her energy in supporting Tyler while ignoring Chloe’s obvious calls for help. When strange things start happening around Chloe, such as items being moved and a closet shelf collapsing mysteriously, nobody believes her when she says she can sense something unnatural in the house.

But Chloe does find a willing listener in Ryan (West Mulholland), one of Tyler’s friends and one of those guys you instantly know is going to be trouble. His words drip honey, and he comes with his own stories of anguish. It isn’t long before he and Chloe are hooking up in secret, but as his manipulation turns more sinister, the presence…well, it makes its presence felt. This happens again later, as the entity shows itself to the entire family after Tyler regales them with a horrible story about a humiliating prank on a girl in his class. Rebekah loves every word of it, while Chris vocalizes his displeasure. The presence isn’t having it, either, revealing to us the first inkling of a motivation why it has chosen to be active now.

After a build that’s almost too slow, Presence ramps up in intensity, backed up by an escalating score by Zack Ryan that takes on more of a horror tone. The long wait is worth it, as disturbing motives are revealed, others become attracted to the entity’s presence, and a shocking sacrificial act that will leave you gasping for air. Under difference hands, this would be a bloated Hollywood thriller with jump scares, extraneous characters, and unnecessary visual effects. But Soderbergh only needs 85-minutes, an eerie home, and a solid cast to spin a satisfying ghost story that is more tangible than ethereal.


Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
sundance-review-presenceIn the opening moments of Steven Soderbergh's Presence, his camera swoops and swirls throughout an empty, multi-tiered home in an idyllic suburb. While Soderbergh's style is always distinguished, more so than a lot of other directors with no fingerprint at all, here his lens...