Monday, February 26, 2024

“PRESENCE”

THE STORY – A family discover they are not alone when they move into a new house.

THE CAST – Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan, Callina Liang, Julia Fox, Eddy Maday & West Mulholland

THE TEAM – Steven Soderbergh (Director) & David Koepp (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 85 Minutes


Besides being one of the most prominent voices when it comes to the preservation and appreciation of cinema as an art form, Steven Soderbergh is perhaps best known today for his ubiquity as a director. Since returning from his so-called retirement with “Logan Lucky” in 2017, he’s released at least one new film every year. And he kicked off 2024 with “Presence,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. His latest film is one of his higher concepts in quite some time, using his love of efficient, no-frills filmmaking for stupendous thematic resonance. It’s his best combination of form and function yet.

“Presence” begins like so many horror movies, with a family moving into an older house, looking for a fresh start to their lives after an unfortunate set of circumstances. Here, the family is made up of a quiet teenage daughter named Chloe (Callina Liang) – still reeling from the sudden death of her friend – Tyler, the boisterous golden child son (Eddy Maday), plus Rebecca (Lucy Liu) and Chris (Chris Sullivan), a mother and father simply going through the expected motions of a married couple. After a headstrong realtor (Julia Fox) helps them move into their new home, mysterious things start happening, making it clear that their new house may not have been uninhabited after all.

But the main character remains unseen. The camera, as it’s eventually revealed, represents the titular spiritual presence that lingers in the home. It glides through the house, observing and, occasionally, stepping in to assist or punish its living inhabitants as it sees fit. Given that Soderbergh shot the film himself, he can practically be considered a performer in his own movie.

This concept is consistently compelling, with the ghost’s perspective executed using long, smooth takes, the camera sometimes getting frighteningly close to the actors. In a sense, this makes the voyeuristic way audiences watch all films into something of a thematic point. The film comments on the very nature of observation and the purpose of watching fictional stories. These characters wouldn’t exist if there weren’t something – or someone – there to witness them. If a tree falls in the forest and no director is there to shoot it, does it even make a sound?

Unfortunately, the story is far less interesting than how it’s told. The characters are broadly drawn, with Chris depicted as a saintly, caring father and Rebecca as a headstrong, goal-oriented mother. Their differing interactions with their children – Rebecca sees Tyler as a beacon of inevitable success but struggles to connect with Chloe, and Chris is the exact opposite – are presented in obvious opposition to each other. The third act brings some heavy dramatics involving Chloe and the boy she’s involved with (West Mulholland). This subplot seems to come out of nowhere and unconvincingly ties into the main story. There are also a handful of other plot lines that simply don’t go anywhere, making it unclear what they’re doing in the film besides providing vague, inelegant character details. As such, the family’s performances are mostly one-note. However, Liu gets the best moment in the film – a chilling emotional reaction to a shocking revelation. And she absolutely nails it, making clear why she’s a star.

“Presence” is a marvel of conceptual filmmaking that is burdened by a frustrating story. Still, Soderbergh is a filmmaker always worthy of examination, even in his failures, and what he’s able to do as a director with his latest film is further proof of his desire to constantly challenge himself and expand the possibilities of the art form.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Steven Soderbergh pushes the possibilities of the art form once again with a brilliant directorial concept that brings something new to the idea of the audience's perspective. Lucy Liu is fantastic.

THE BAD - The screenplay is frustrating and broad, with shallow characterizations and odd plot developments.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Cody Dericks
Cody Dericks
Actor, awards & musical theatre buff. Co-host of the horror film podcast Halloweeners.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Steven Soderbergh pushes the possibilities of the art form once again with a brilliant directorial concept that brings something new to the idea of the audience's perspective. Lucy Liu is fantastic.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The screenplay is frustrating and broad, with shallow characterizations and odd plot developments.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"PRESENCE"