Review of “Presence” – an intriguing ghost story experiment by Steven Soderbergh.

Estimated read time 3 min read


For many filmmakers, the restrictions imposed by Covid proved to be suffocating and created a clear divide between those who were able to thrive in these difficult circumstances and those who could not. Steven Soderbergh, a director known for his unwavering creativity and resilience, defied the odds and produced one of the few must-see films of the pandemic, the little-known thriller Kimi. This modernized take on a classic 70s thriller showcases Soderbergh’s ability to push boundaries and adapt to new technology. He and screenwriter David Koepp, who previously worked together on Kimi, have joined forces once again for a project that shares similar characteristics on paper.

The film Presence, which was shrouded in trademark mystery, was filmed last summer with a waiver and is now being revealed at Sundance. It is a genre exercise that takes place in one location and playfully plays with familiar themes. Director and cinematographer Soderbergh uses this opportunity to experiment. This time, he explores the conventions of haunted house horror, telling the story from the perspective of a ghost haunting a newly renovated house. The new inhabitants, a family led by Lucy Liu and This is Us actor Chris Sullivan, move in with their teenage children Callina Liang and Eddy Maday. As is common in this genre, the family brings along their own personal struggles and hopes for a fresh start in their new home after a period of unease.

In Soderbergh’s film, there are long, continuous shots that show the family falling apart – a daughter grieving over a friend, a mother favoring her son, and a father worried about a potential legal battle. We are left to interpret the significance of these scenes and where the story might be headed. Initially, the experimental approach is effective, with the identity and intentions of the spirit remaining unknown and the genre of the film remaining ambiguous. Soderbergh skillfully involves us in the story, using snippets and observations to paint a complex and troubled family dynamic. The use of music adds depth to the emotional journey. However, as the story and genre become clearer, the initial intrigue begins to diminish.

As we become more familiar with the family, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe their dynamics. Koepp’s portrayal of division is heavy-handed, with the mother and son being exaggeratedly awful compared to the saintly father and daughter. The relatable passive-aggression turns into nastiness, but the tension ultimately falls flat. The introduction of a conventional thriller plot is also unconvincing, with the subtle hints of mystery leading to a predictable reveal. The film lacks passion and by the end, the only thing setting it apart from generic genre films is its visual gimmick.

This is an experiment that still holds interest and can be seen as a technical exercise. Even when Soderbergh is not at his best, he still surpasses many of his colleagues. However, the overall presence of the film never quite reaches its potential, leaving us with a ghost story that is haunted by what it could have been.

  • Presence is showing at the Sundance film festival and is seeking distribution


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