It can never be said that the gleeful maniac of a director Steven Soderbergh isn’t always looking to try new things. Throughout his decades-long career — which began when he premiered his enduring debut feature “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” at Sundance way back in 1989 — he has amassed a truly unparalleled and eclectic filmography that has been increasingly defined by formal experimentation.
This continues with his darkly humorous and often chilling psychological thriller “Presence,” which the director premiered at the festival on Friday. Written by David Koepp, who previously wrote Soderbergh’s 2022 film “Kimi,” it plays both as a haunted house story and a family drama about what happens when we drift away from those closest to us.
In this case, the story being told matters far less than the way the director goes about telling it. From the opening moments where the camera pulls back from a window before floating through an enormous, yet eerily empty, house where we’ll remain for the entire film, there is a sense of unease that will continue to grow.
Though tempered by shaky acting in key moments and an often inconsistent integration of its supernatural observer, you can’t stop watching it all unfold. Without ever breaking away from the formal conceit where we’re viewing the world through the eyes of some sort of being who is trapped here, we get taken into the lives of the deeply troubled family that is looking to start fresh in this new home following a tragedy.
Rebekah (Lucy Liu) is the hardworking matriarch with a clear favorite of her two children, while Chris (Chris Sullivan) is the concerned patriarch worried his family may be coming apart. Said children, Chloe (Callina Liang) and Tyler (Eddy Maday), could not be more different from each other, even as they each launch into hurling insults with a speed that only comes with plenty of practice.
As they try to settle into their new home, Soderbergh takes us in for occasional close-ups though remains content in leaving us at a distance. That is, until we aren’t. While everyone else remains unaware of the presence in the house, Chloe will look right at the camera and the being it represents. She does so as she believes she knows who it is.
Whether she is correct in this is something Soderbergh and Koepp are, smartly, uninterested in confirming. That such an explanation makes potential sense to the characters is enough for the movie, as it is more about providing snapshots of them making sense of what is happening. There are more cuts to black in this movie than just about any you’ll ever see. It serves to collapse typical markers of time as we are left wondering what transpired in between scenes.
Considering Soderbergh has talked about the tyranny of narrative and how films are bound by a linear cinematic grammar that can become constricting, these recurring disruptions make sense. Each time we are thrown into something new, the film teases out moments of humor built around the family’s dysfunction just as it draws out a growing feeling that something bad is coming.
Where the film falls flat is when it falls prey to this narrative. Having characters speak aloud key information, or allude to what feels like a potential crime drama playing out in the background, can feel like “Presence” is sacrificing its formal uncertainty for more conventional legibility.
While this film is not bad by any means, there is a more bold feature lurking in the corners of the house, along with the spiritual force that serves as the film’s guide. Though Soderbergh isn’t setting out to make his version of something like last year’s breakout horror hit “Skinamarink,” one still wishes he let loose far more to shake up the repetition of it all.
The film does become upended when the supernatural watcher is no longer content to just watch and begins making its presence known. That it may be less the thing to fear than the people we let into our lives and trust is perhaps the film’s most chilling point. There is much to be desired in the way one particular actor embodies this in a shattering late twist, but the formal precision Soderbergh maintains smoothes over any remaining hangups.
From a brief moment of hair being disturbed by breathing, to a devastating closing shot of a mirror, it’s all solid filmmaking. This command of craft ensures that, while “Presence” may not be Soderbergh’s best work, it manages to float above it as only he can.
“Presence” is a sales title at Sundance.