The presence of a camera changes things. Trained actors aside, most people are uncomfortable enough with the knowledge that there’s a lens in their face that they’ll change their behavior in turn. Ghosts, meanwhile, observe without being noticed, with only a few sensitive souls able to discern them at all. Steven Soderbergh’s latest cinematic experiment conflates the two, filming a haunted house story from the perspective of the spirit.
Ghosts are tied to a location, and so is “Presence.” The film takes place entirely within the confines of a handsome, century-old home — the furthest the characters get is the driveway, which the camera observes anxiously through a window like a dog awaiting its family’s return. The film unfolds in a series of single takes, which follow characters through the house and watch them from the closets and corners of various rooms. When an object floats across the room, the camera moves with it; when characters talk to each other, it pivots back and forth between them.
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The first-person point of view, continuous tracking shots, and complete lack of reverse shots give “Presence” the feel of a video game or an immersive VR experience. The fact that it still works as a movie is a testament to the cohesion of the cast and crew, with Soderbergh serving as a camera operator as well as director. It’s not quite a found footage movie — again, the camera isn’t really a camera, but the eyes of a “presence” in the home. But it plays like one, stringing together snippets of conversation and isolated events separated by a few frames of black.
The story begins by gliding through the empty rooms of the house, latching onto real estate agent Cece (Julia Fox) as she bursts through the door and quickly pulls herself together for a showing. The first family to see the house — Rebekah (Lucy Liu), Chris (Chris Sullivan), their son Tyler (Eddy Maday), and their daughter Chloe (Callina Liang) — buys it immediately. (It’s in a good school district.)
A common thread in haunted house stories, real and fictional, is the existence of an emotionally turbulent adolescent. And Callie, whose best friend recently died of a fentanyl overdose and who’s neglected in favor of her golden-boy brother, is a classic example. She’s also, not coincidentally, the only one who can sense that there’s something else there with them.
The problem is that, while the film is conceptually solid, its story gets shakier as it goes along. Screenwriter David Koepp creates intrigue through naturalistic dialogue, and little details — the family never cooks, but always eats takeout — say a lot about these characters and their relationships. But the introduction of Ryan (West Mulholland), a sinister jock with plans for Chloe, sends the story in a ludicrous direction that’s less than the sum of its parts. Here, Sullivan and Liang save the film, playing real people surrounded by mean-spirited stand-ins.
Perhaps more importantly, for a haunted house movie, “Presence” just isn’t very scary. Maybe it’s because we’re not waiting to see the ghost — we are the ghost. That’s an interesting idea in theory. But in terms of creating tension, a simple shadow at the end of a long dark hallway is so much more effective.
“Presence” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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