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‘Presence’ Review: Steven Soderbergh Spins a Nail-Biting Ghost Story, Working Magic in a Single Setting

It’s an invigorating feeling to know early on in a movie that you’re in confident hands, and Steven Soderbergh conveys that assurance instantaneously in the opening moments of Presence. Shooting under his usual DP pseudonym of Peter Andrews, the director guides his subjective camera into every corner of a handsome old two-story house in a leafy suburb, darting through some spaces and sneaking in close for a longer look at others. The gentle piano score doesn’t exactly hint at menace, but we know something is a little off in this desirable property, which stands empty and is about to be shown to prospective buyers.

Following their collaboration on the taut thriller Kimi, Soderbergh again works from an expertly honed screenplay by distinguished vet David Koepp and the pair seem to be in their element building suspense in a single setting. Rather than constrict the storytelling in any way, that confinement serves to lock in the tension, like a pressure cooker does with steam. It’s clear from the start that the wood-lined house will be a major character, but even more significant is the point of view behind that subjective camera, which gives the film its title.

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In what’s basically an extended cameo that signals the tart sense of humor subtly in play throughout, Julia Fox steps briskly through the door as a realtor just moments before the family interested in the house arrives. Rebekah (Lucy Liu) is certain she wants it even before seeing upstairs and while her pensive husband Chris (Chris Sullivan) prefers not to rush into a commitment, he’s used to letting her make the decisions. The precisely sketched family dynamic is established with Soderbergh’s usual no-fuss economy.

We learn that their teenage son Tyler (Eddy Maday) is a keen competitive swimmer and their daughter Chloe (Callina Liang) is a sensitive, somewhat withdrawn young woman whose best friend recently died — revealed soon after from what’s assumed to be an accidental drug overdose. Hers was the second recent death of someone in Chloe’s circle in similar circumstances and Chris worries his daughter could end up being a third.

One of the reliably great things about having Soderbergh behind the wheel is that he strips away all superfluous information and hits you with just the fundamentals, an approach that finds the ideal collaborator in Koepp. The city in which the story unfolds goes unidentified, the reason for the family’s move is never stated and neither parent’s profession is established beyond the general indication that they’re reasonably well-heeled businesspeople.

What matters is that kindly Chris resents all-work, zero-warmth Rebekah’s inattention to family matters, while she only seems to look up from her phone or laptop when her undisguised favorite, Tyler, is talking. “It’s all for you,” she tells him, alluding to her career but perhaps also to some slightly shady dealings that are causing Chris concern. Also, there’s little discernible love between Tyler and Chloe, who he feels is always inviting “weird shit” to happen. That dismissal is echoed by his mother in cold terms when she matter-of-factly comments on her daughter’s depression: “She can’t take us all down with her.”

Chloe at first says nothing to the rest of the family when she starts sensing a presence in her room, even finding her study materials mysteriously tidied away on her desk while she’s showering. She confides only in Ryan (West Mulholland), the school buddy of Tyler’s with whom she secretly starts hooking up.

Ryan puts on a good show for her of having his own private despair and of letting her take the lead in their trysts. But there’s manipulation in his method, which sparks the first seemingly irrefutable evidence of an unseen force in the house — something the audience knows pretty much from the start. The second instance follows Tyler’s boastful account of a humiliating prank he pulled on a girl at school, his mother hanging on his every word while making the required noises of disapproval. These incidents appear to indicate that the presence can either protect or punish.

What happens from there on out should be left to the viewer to discover, but Zack Ryan’s richly atmospheric music steadily builds in intensity, taking on the flavor of an old-school horror score. Meanwhile, new information comes via an external character, who may or may not be legit, as Soderbergh and Koepp tighten the screws all the way through a twisty reveal (the one point at which the script risks unraveling), followed by a gasp-inducing climactic shock and its shattered aftermath, which is the only time the camera ever leaves the house.

This is an enormously satisfying watch for haunted house movie fans, favoring sustained anxiety over big scares and practical effects over digital trickery. The degree to which Soderbergh harnesses the mesmerizing power of visual storytelling cannot be overstated, with the camera often hanging back in Chloe’s bedroom closet, as if watching from a cautious distance, or moving skittishly in and out of rooms and up and down the stairs when there’s urgent work to be done. The director’s editing (as always, billing himself as Mary Ann Bernard) also is razor-sharp.

Casting could not be better. Rebekah is a terrific role for Liu, allowing her to show some hard edges but never making her such a monster that the marriage is questionable or preventing us from feeling for her when she suffers a crushing blow. Sullivan, who worked with Soderbergh on two seasons of The Knick, before a long stint on This Is Us, deftly shows Chris’ tenderness toward his fragile daughter and his loyalty, even if it’s tested, but also his gnawing exasperation with family frictions. A dinner table flare-up absolutely crackles.

Newcomer Liang is a real discovery as Chloe, inarguably damaged yet with an independent spirit and unexpected displays of strength and decisiveness. Maday and Mulholland effectively convey the selfishness and disposable moral codes common in dudes of that age, Tyler more openly than Ryan.

A scene in which Chris tells Chloe about his detachment for years from his fanatically religious mother serves as his roundabout, rambling way of letting his daughter know that he believes her.

There’s a sneaking suspicion in Presence also that Soderbergh and Koepp might be winking at us to suggest they don’t entirely rule out the existence of ghosts or similar unexplained phenomena. In an interview supplied with press notes, the director reveals that while his beliefs aligned more closely with those of his skeptical academic father, his mother was a parapsychologist. He amusingly describes the level-headed believer as “Beatrice Straight in Poltergeist.” You get the sense here that she would be proud.

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