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‘Presence’ Film Review: More Human Dysfunction Than Spooks In Steven Soderbergh’s Latest Thriller – Sundance Film Festival

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and penned by David Koepp, the haunting psychological thriller Presence follows a fractured family as a mysterious supernatural force infiltrates their new home and takes interest in their daughter, Chloe. The film stars Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan, Callina Liang, Eddy Maday, West Mulholland and Julia Fox.

An unsettling presence permeates the home of Chris (Sullivan) and Ruth (Liu) before they even move in. This supernatural entity is a witness to the family’s most vulnerable moments. It has a particular focus on the couple’s young daughter, Chloe (Liang), who is always at odds with her mother and brother Tyler (Maday). However, the young girl is in mourning because of her two girls, one of them — her best friend, Nadia — died recently.

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Ruth thinks the key is letting her daughter deal with her own problems, while Chris thinks it needs to be addressed. With Tyler having little empathy for her, she has no one to turn to. As days pass in the new home, the cryptic presence turns its unnerving attention toward claiming Chloe for its own ends. The family struggles to reclaim their home, which escalates into a battle for their family itself, and questioning if this entity is a ghost, or something far more nefarious.

This psychological thriller is not the supernatural jump-scare fest one may have anticipated. Soderbergh’s Presence evokes Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, as the themes in both films find entities linked to familial drama and shot from a similar point of view.

As sole cinematographer, Soderbergh’s camera embodies the film’s invisible yet permeating presence, tracing this family’s every move as a voyeuristic force trained on Chloe for reasons disturbingly unclear. This cast is filmed as if trapped in scene after scene with claustrophobic intimacy, with Liu leading the way through Soderbergh’s emotional maze of mystery. It’s so good to see the actress back in form and working on indie features. She is just one of those talents that the camera loves.

The third act provides some overdue, not as satisfying explanation for the torment endured by this family. While certain reveals land with haunting surprise, others strain credulity regarding the presence’s motivations. However, the ultimate focus remains on the family’s fraying bonds, wisely avoiding any trite good-versus-evil clash. We are left haunted not by CGI specters, but the all-too-human dysfunctions within and around us.

Lacking commercial appeal and a neatly tied resolution, Presence proves that Soderbergh is someone primed to take risks and operate outside of studio constraints. Testing new stylistic waters and a minimalist script from Koepp, the film may bewilder many. But for the director’s fans, it signifies another cinematic success.

Title: Presence
Festival (Section): Sundance (Premieres)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: David Koepp
Cast: Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan, Callina Liang, Eddy Maday, West Mulholland, Julia Fox
Running time: 1 hr 25 min

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