Shane West's choice of projects is really giving me mixed signals. First I wanted to hug him in Once & Again. That was before I realized he could inflict serious bodily harm thanks to Nikita. Now, with The Presence - which I stupidly made the mistake of watching in the middle of the night - he has scared the bejesus out of me, and I mean that as a compliment.
In the psychological thriller - to call it a horror movie would be inaccurate - he plays a spirit haunting a remote cabin (aren't they all remote?). And he's downright unsettling at points and heartbreaking at others. There were moments where I was genuinely concerned about what he might do, and others where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. That is a really difficult line to walk, because it involves engendering two different and opposing emotional reactions from the audience. And yet, he pulls it off - because that's what Shane West does. He does that thing you told him he couldn't do (see: The Echelon Conspiracy).
This time, he pulls it out of almost nothing.
He doesn't get a name. He gets very little of a backstory. He's required to do very little through large parts of the flick. And he gets one word of dialogue in the entire hour and twenty-seven minutes. The only way he could have been given less is if he was playing a dead body (which isn't much of a reach).
Challenge accepted. Despite all that, there's the usual nuance that you'd expect from a Shane West performance. Yes, he's very good at scaring the bejesus out of me - probably has something to do with all that staring he's doing. Yet by the end of the film, he's humanized the ghost; there's a moment where he gets this hopeful, particularly adorable look on his face (to say more would be a spoiler), and I just wanted to hug him. While still conscious of the fact that I'd kind of wanted to hide from him earlier. To create a character that the audience can connect with out of next to nothing is something that's deserving of commendation.
On that note, so too must I extend that same compliment to his costars: Mira Sorvino (Mimic) and Justin Kirk (Weeds) as the couple who are unfortunately mixed up in this mess, Muse Watson (NCIS) as the obligatory local neighbor, and Tony Curran playing the evil spirit to Shane's conflicted one. Only Watson's character gets a name, and only Sorvino's character gets any sort of significant backstory, yet they're a game cast for sure.
Of the group, it's Kirk who comes out the best, with an affable nature that makes you like him - and sort of feel sorry he had to date the one girl who happens to like spending time in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. His character voices some of the audience's skepticism which is also endearing. Sorvino is fine as his girlfriend, who has a long history with the haunted place, and so is Watson. I can't say that I enjoyed anything about Curran's character, who grated on my nerves, but considering that he's the bad guy in the picture, I'm pretty sure that was the point. Though I wouldn't call any of their performances outstanding, I do respect them for creating characters with so little at their disposal.
Unfortunately, that renewed appreciation for actors is the biggest thing that I took away from The Presence. Sometimes minimalism works, and sometimes it doesn't - and this is one of those cases where I just wish there was more in some aspects. I'm guessing that the characters didn't get names because we're supposed to be considering the happenings and themes rather than their specific lives, but I have a hard time getting invested in any movie where I don't have characters that I care about. The acting is fine, but I never got a grasp of who these characters were, which made it hard for me to form a connection to the flick as a whole.
I'm also sure this movie got a bit mislabeled, which set up expectations for some viewers that it wasn't going to fulfill. Reading over other comments on it, some saw "ghost story" and thought "horror movie," which I can't blame them for. Not when the front cover markets it as being produced by the co-creator of the The Blair Witch Project. This isn't a horror movie at all, and there are very few legitimate scary moments. It's creepy and uncomfortable, with talk of child molestation and murder courtesy of Curran's character, but I wouldn't say it's frightening, with the obvious exception of Shane West doing the ghost act to perfection.
Therein lies the problem. What does the movie want us to take away from it? It's not a character-driven piece, for sure. It's not a horror movie. So there must be some bigger picture we're meant to see...and while I saw it, I didn't care about it. I caught a couple of hints and connections, but they weren't necessarily food for thought. The theme, which is emphasized with the now-obligatory final plot twist that is not a final plot twist anymore because we expect them nowadays, is pretty basic. I went and watched the DVD "making-of" extra to see if I had simply missed something more complex, and while I appreciate the ideas that writer/director Tom Provost was laying out, I don't believe I came away with anything near what he was trying for.
It may have gotten lost in a few other aspects of the film that had me bothered. The allegedly spooky score is a bit too loud and obvious, which makes it more distracting than anything else. The bigger problem is that it is an exceptionally slow starter. There's a ton of scenic shots, then a bunch more shots of the ghost sitting and staring in various rooms of the cabin, and then when Sorvino's character finally arrives, she's got to poke around the cabin, too. If not for my being a fan of Shane West's work, I probably wouldn't have stuck with this one past the first twenty minutes.
That's not saying that The Presence is a bad movie. I'm glad that I saw it, because if nothing else, watching Shane's performance gave me a greater appreciation of just how talented and thoughtful he is as an actor. As a screenwriter, I looked at this script and came away with renewed understanding of my role in the overall scheme that is a motion picture. Whatever my thoughts on the picture itself, at the very least, I feel like I learned something from it - just not necessarily anything that the writer/director wanted me to have learned.
If you're a fan of Shane West, you owe it to yourself to check this one out, because it should make you an even bigger fan. At least, I might still want to hug him, if only for doing a fantastic job that I don't think many other actors could have.
In today's movie climate, though, where patience is not necessarily an audience's strong suit, I have to say that The Presence is a mere rental. Just don't watch it after dark.