Legendary director Steven Soderbergh enters the realm of horror for the first time with Presence, an eerie psychological thriller. Known for slick heist films and medical dramas, Soderbergh surprises audiences by immersing them in the tense atmosphere of a haunted house story.
Shooting under his cinematographer pseudonym Peter Andrews, he employs an ingenious first-person perspective to put viewers directly into the shoes of an unseen presence stalking a suburban family after they move into its long-time home.
We become the voyeuristic spirit hovering ominously through every room, witnessing the most intimate and vulnerable moments in each family member’s life. Though light on stereotypical jump scares, Soderbergh ratchets up a creeping sense of unease and mystery as we observe fractures form within the family.
Led by a distraught daughter able to detect supernatural activity, their breakdown coincides with increasingly bizarre and threatening paranormal events focused squarely on her. Soderbergh keeps us guessing whether the presence is simply a witness to the chaos or the sinister orchestrator of it in this brooding and minimalist spin on the haunted house genre.
A Ghostly Perspective
Soderbergh immediately pulls viewers into Presence’s unsettling atmosphere through the ingenious use of a roving, first-person camera perspective. We essentially see through the eyes of the titular presence haunting the home, gliding eerily from room to room. The director’s camerawork creates the sensation that we have become this lurking spirit, peering around corners and rushing up staircases. Soderbergh employs long, unbroken tracking shots to enhance the ghostly feel, following characters as they move through the house unaware of our prying gaze.
We hover voyeuristically outside open doors, plunge into closets behind hanging clothes, and sweep objects mysteriously across tables. The lack of reverse shots adds to the immersive quality, never allowing us to see the presence itself. We only view the family from an outsider’s vantage point, incrementally learning of their various dysfunction through fragments of tense conversations and furtive interactions.
With no physical form on screen, Soderbergh uses lighting, music and sound design to further embody the presence. Shadows seem to move of their own accord and footsteps creak on old floorboards when no one is present. The score builds ominously whenever the camera focuses on the anguished teenage daughter able to sense its existence.
Diegetic sounds guide our attention and ratchet up suspense, allowing us to virtually drift through scenes as a phantom visitor. While story issues undermine the plotting itself, Soderbergh’s ingenious execution of such an audacious technical challenge alone makes Presence a uniquely watchable experiment in horror atmosphere and point of view.
Family Fragmentation Meets the Supernatural
At its core, Presence utilizes its ghost story trappings to explore the slow implosion of a family unit. We open on the picture-perfect suburban household – two driven parents, a popular jock son, a shy artistic daughter. But Soderbergh quickly peels back the veneer of stability. Career-focused mother Rebekah openly neglects sensitive daughter Chloe, lavishing praise and attention instead on rising swim team star Tyler. Their father Chris clearly favors Chloe, but his patience with Rebekah’s coldness wears thin. Cracks in their bonds slowly split open as we hover unseen in their midst.
Still grieving over her best friend’s death, Chloe feels isolated and alone, her depression worsened by her brother’s cruelty and mother’s indifference. She hides away in her room, finding momentary solace in a charming new friend before realizing his true menacing intentions. Chloe represents the broken bird that no one wants to heal – except perhaps the watchful presence itself. Our ghostly voyeur seems most drawn to her suffering, protecting Chloe by lashing out violently at those who hurt her. Actor Callina Liang brings an aching vulnerability to the role, letting us feel the presence almost as if it were a guardian angel on her shoulder.
Yet later plot developments introduce jarring notes that unravel this nuanced family drama. A contrived romance and the revelation of the presence’s identity careen Presence into B-movie territory, straining audience investment built on well-drawn characters. Thankfully grounded lead performances anchor these weaker script lapses. Chris Sullivan radiates moral decency as the worried father, while Lucy Liu projects icy determination cracking into panicked grief. Their mix of compassion and flaws ultimately resonate louder than the flawed supernatural spectacle surrounding them.
A Slow-Burn Case of the Creeps
Rather than bombarding audiences with jump scares, Soderbergh patiently curates an atmosphere of creeping dread and psychological unease. Presence plays more like a brooding Gothic mystery than a carnival funhouse ride. Much of the terror simmers subtly in the seemingly mundane – an object misplaced, a shadow where it shouldn’t be, hushed voices down a dark hallway. We search fruitlessly for answers alongside the family, scanning each room for clues as the tension gradually mounts.
Soderbergh and screenwriter David Koepp expertly stoke intrigue through naturalistic dialogue rather than explanatory exposition. We learn about the family organically as we invade their privacy, piecemeal gathering disturbing clues about the daughter’s depression, the son’s cruelty, the mother’s cold ambition. Ominous reveals land with greater impact for arriving unforced. Even small grace notes like the family’s reliance on perpetual takeout resonate loaded meaning about their disconnected state.
Yet despite the palpable mood of Gothic gloom, Presence never reaches the anticipated crescendo of frights. There lies the rub with embodying the perspective of a ghostly presence – we never experience that delicious adrenaline rush of anticipating its appearance. Shadows portend nothing; scenes play out unhurried. Ironically the very camera technique intended to maximize tension may rob the film of traditional jump scares. Presence offers a steady undercurrent of eeriness but not the sharp spikes of a haunted house thriller done more conventionally. For Soderbergh, the emotion lies more in the tragedy of the family itself than any literal specter.
Finding Meaning in What Lingers Behind
Beyond crafting a creepy ghost story, Soderbergh explores poignant themes about family connections, mortality, and the great beyond. The core concept alone resonates – an invisible presence observing a family unit as its cracks slowly split open. We witness the most painfully intimate scenes – parents arguing, siblings tormenting each other, private traumas and losses. The presence is privy even to events it couldn’t possibly attend, like closed-door conversations. Its omniscience lets us assess each character completely exposed and vulnerable.
In interviews, Soderbergh revealed his mother was a parapsychologist fascinated by paranormal phenomena. It’s intriguing to ponder how much he imbued Presence with ideas informed by a childhood spent discussing otherworldly topics. Does the ghostly watcher reflect some version of his mother now able to check in on her famous son? There exist touching scenes of Chris opening up about losing touch with his own zealously religious mother that resonate as insightful personal therapy.
Spiritual overtones permeate the film, contemplated by both Chloe and her father in their separate searches for meaning amidst loss. Presence literally embodies the concept of a soul lingering after death, perhaps seeking closure or connection. And Soderbergh leaves tantalizingly open the question of what exactly continues existing on some plane even after we depart our earthly bodies. The director renowned for grounded realism hints here at hungering for something more eternal.
A Polarizing Entry in the Soderbergh Canon
Boasting an ingeniously executed central gimmick, Presence will likely thrill horror fans in search of bold new perspective even as general audiences grow frustrated with its fragmented second half. Soderbergh succeeds splendidly at conjuring an unsettling mood through his unprecedented first-person presentation. Tracking shots glide through the creaky old home like breezes off a foreboding sea. Reminiscent of entries in the Paranormal Activity franchise, the director maximizes tension slowly boiling within mundane environments. He toys masterfully with the concept of a watchful presence while misdirecting its true motives, playing viewers like a phantom virtuoso astride piano keys.
Yet away from its technical prowess, the film hits a few bum notes. David Koepp’s script captivates more in its initial family drama before convoluting itself with plot twists both overly convenient and straining credulity. Character depth dissipates as we build towards more traditional horror hijinks in the final act. The reliable cast keeps scenes grounded, though they struggle swimming against the tide of silliness rising around them.
In the end Presence emerges a slightly mixed bag – eerie fun for hardcore devotees of all things Soderbergh and scary, but likely leaving casual fans scratching their heads. Those viewers enter expecting the polished potboiler thrills of a Hitchcock masterwork. What they get instead is a experimental one-man band concert held together by atmosphere and visual trickery as the storytelling buckles. Approach with an open mind and you’ll find rewards worth revisiting. Let nagging logic dominate and the premise likely collapses before your eyes. Either way, Soderbergh once again delivers a cinematic curiosity unlike anything else currently on offer.
- Innovative and immersive first-person camera perspective
- Effectively ratchets up creepy atmosphere
- Strong lead performances (especially Sullivan and Liang)
- Explores thoughtful themes about family, mortality, the afterlife
- Ambitious genre experiment by renowned director
- Story loses momentum and logic in second half
- Plot twists strain credulity
- Lacks traditional horror movie scares and tension
- Could have gone deeper with compelling premise