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‘Presence’ Review: Steven Soderbergh Tells a Ghost Story from the Ghost’s POV. It Is Scary? Not Quite. But the Family Demons Lure You In

“Presence,” a ghost story directed by Steven Soderbergh,  is set entirely inside a lovely, renovated, 100-year-old suburban home, and before the characters even have a chance to move in, the place is already occupied. The camera literally seems to be peering at things, staring out the second-floor windows, then coming down the stairs to witness the arrival of a harried real-estate agent, then the family of four she’s about to sell the house to. Darting from room to room in an unbroken wide-angle-lens shot, the camera gives us an impromptu tour of the house, letting us drink in the crisp mint-green walls, the vintage wood that lines everything (windows, doors, stairway, fireplace), the ancient smoke-glass mirror and polished oak-board floors and elegant sprawling kitchen. Yet this is no mere real-estate porn. For the entire rest of the movie, Soderbergh employs that roving, bobbing and weaving voyeuristic camera’s-eye view. “Presence” might just be the very first ghost story in which the ghost turns out to be Brian De Palma’s cinematographer.

I exaggerate, though not by much. In “Presence,” we’re indeed taking in the entire movie from the point-of-view of the unseen spirit who has taken over the house. The spirit hovers and observes and always seems to know where the action is; nothing escapes its view. Yet in this case, the cinematographer is Soderbergh himself (shooting under the nom de plume Peter Andrews), and while he has shot many of his own films, going back to “Traffic,” you get the feeling that part of the fun of “Presence” for Soderbergh was literally, through the conceit of the ghost, finding a way to join in the action, to become part of it and fuse with it.

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Yet you might well ask: If the audience is seeing everything that the ghost sees, then how can the ghost scare us? That’s a very good question, and while “Presence” sinks into an authentic family drama whose tentacles of intrigue are just dark enough to lure us in, it’s not an especially frightening movie — at least, not by the jump-scare standards of the megaplex. The ghost in “Presence” likes to watch, but after a while it also does a few things, like lifting books and carrying them over to a desk (its lofting of a paperback appears to have been accomplished with special effects borrowed from a teenage magician), or crashing a shelf down from the top of a bedroom closet. These teasing moments encourage you to think that we might be in store for some jitters on the level of a good “Paranormal Activity” sequel.

But no. The presence in “Presence” is mostly — merely — a presence, and for long stretches we almost forget it’s there; we’re just watching a shoestring movie shot with a rather nosy and flamboyant visual style. Soderberg stages each scene in a long unbroken take, ending each one of them with a cut to black. All very stylish and percussive. But if he had made a version of this movie without the ghost-as-camera-eye conceit, it would have been more or less the same movie.

Paranormal activity aside, this family has enough ghosts of its own. The mother, Rebecca (Lucy Liu), is a tightly wound control freak who runs everything and plays favorites with her kids (she’s the one who decides, in the space of five minutes, to purchase the house, mostly because it’s in the coveted district that will allow the teenage son she dotes on to attend North High School). Rebecca works at an oblique high-finance job in which she’s committed some mysterious illegal action that could get them into hot water. Tyler (Eddy Maday), the son, is sweet on the surface but a mean-boy lout underneath, and his sister, Chloe (Callina Liang), is falling into a depression, though not just because she’s entered the teen-blues tunnel. Her best friend, Nadia, died a few months before of a drug overdose. (She’s the second girl in her school to have died that way.) Chloe is the one member of the family who can sense the ghost’s presence, and Soderbergh doesn’t waste much time revealing why that is. As it turns out, the ghost is there not to haunt but to protect.

The thing about Soderbergh’s “little films” is that they’re brash and inventive and superior to what so many directors could just toss off. But you get the feeling that the main reason they exist is so that Soderbergh can enjoy tinkering with them. That doesn’t sound like a bad philosophy of art or moviemaking, yet he tends to throw these films together in a way that “works” (they carry you along) but that leaves no imprint. It’s as if he were crafting a puzzle by making up pieces on the spot.

This one has a script by David Koepp, who also wrote Soderbergh’s “Kimi” (2022), which was a better movie. In “Presence,” the ghost idea is a foregrounded backdrop that yields neither major scares nor awesome revelations. Instead, the film locates its heart of darkness squarely in the human world, especially when Chloe gets drawn into a sexualized friendship with Tyler’s buddy, played with deceptive masochistic creepiness by West Mullholland. He’s a very good young actor — and, in fact, all the acting in “Presence” is ace. Callina Liang rounds out Chloe’s despair, Lucy Liu makes Rebecca a duplicitous troublemaker who keeps encouraging you to see what’s underneath the scheming, and I especially liked Chris Sullivan, who plays the beleaguered dad like a straitlaced Louis CK (he thinks he’s still in a world where he can get his kids to stop swearing), with a falling-apart-at-the-seams desperation that speaks to an age when families don’t quite speak to each other.

“Presence,” in its showy angst, winks at topicality, in the same way that it winks at a lot of other things (like things that go bump in the night, or the rise of teenage mental illness, or serial killers). But it’s just flirting with all of them. You want the movie to add up to something, but what it adds up to is another half-diverting, half-satisfying Soderbergh bauble, only this time he’s the ghost in the machine.

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