Sundance Film Review: Presence

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: Presence
Director: Steven Soderbergh

Sugar 23 and Extension 765
Premiere: 01.19

While horror may not be my genre of choice, a really good haunted house flick can be a lot of fun. Between this trope, and the presence a of top-tier director, I entered Presence prepared to really enjoy myself.

As Presence opens, we are introduced to a family of four checking out a new home. There’s Rebecca (Lucy Liu, Kill Bill. Vol.1), the businesswoman wife and mother, and Chris (Chris Sullivan This is Us), the burly, down-to-earth dad. The teenage children, Tyler (newcomer Eddy Maday) and Chloe (Callina Liang, Tell Me Everything) are different. Tyler is a star athlete who is the apple of his mother’s eye, while Chloe is a quiet and depressed teen still trying to process the mysterious sudden death of her best friend, Nadia. Soon after the family moves in, Chloe starts to notice a strange presence in the home. Rebecca doesn’t believe her and Tyler mocks and yells at her, deeply resenting any time spent discussing any subject apart from himself. Chris is the only one listening until things take a turn for the frightening one night and the family is forced to address the possibility that they are not alone.

The big gimmick of Presence is that the movie is shot entirely from one angle by Soderbergh himself and the entire story unfolds from the point of the enigmatic supernatural visitor, who is watching the family, especially Chloe. It’s a promising concept, though it ultimately doesn’t feel much different from a found footage horror flick, and as much fun as Soderbergh is having testing how quickly he can go up and down a staircase with his camera, the film is not exactly on par with 1917 when it comes to dazzling staging. Still, this is most successful aspect of the film– as the character drama is a complete mess. Rebecca’s favoring of Tyler over Chloe goes from off-putting to loathsome very quickly, and there’s really no overstating how thoroughly hateful and cartoonish Tyler becomes. He’s such a mean, spiteful and absurdly narcissistic wad of phlegm that I found myself actively rooting for his demise. When Tyler starts to become part of the ‘in crowd’ at school, cool kid Ryan (West Mulholland, Dark Harvest) starts hanging around the house to leer at Chloe and generally, telegraph that he’s bad news with every moment he’s on screen. And therein lies the number one reason I can’t recommend Presence: there are no surprises, no scares, and the plot is paper thin. As a practical test of Soderbergh’s camera rig, it’s a resounding success, yet on every other level it’s a bore. 

It’s nice to see Liu in a major role, though she’s underutilized and unconvincing. The character of Rebecca is so one more and heartless that I just started tuning her out. Sullivan fares best, nailing the handful of memorable comic lines that screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) throws his way and creating the most likable character in the film. Liang is effective in his role, though it’s hardly a layered characterization, and Maday and Mulholland are over the top in a way that’s alternately infuriating and hilarious but always embarrassing.

Presence is less a movie than it is a gimmick, and while I’m all for Soderbergh making smaller films along with the bigger ones, this is the latest frustrating example of his tendency to go for volume above all else. It’s easily the lowest point of my Sundance experience this year and one of the least interesting entries in the director’s decades-long filmography. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.