Directed by David Pastor and Àlex Pastor
The Occupant is a return to domestic-thriller type horrors from yesteryear, which have long since been degraded to Lifetime. I’m thinking of flicks such as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Fatal Attraction and Sleeping With The Enemy. You’ll know them: movies in which someone enters another person’s life then, through a combo of neediness and Machiavellianism, destroy it piece by piece. Lucky McKee tried to bring them back last year and mostly managed, with Kindred Spirits, while Netflix tried, with Secret Obsession, and failed miserably. Now the streaming giants are back at it with their latest exclusive: a Spanish movie entitled The Occupant.
Only this is less Single White Female than Married, Pale, Male. Javier (Muñoz) is a middle-aged, and formerly successful, advertiser struggling to make it an industry that’s increasingly dominated by young people. With a portfolio of cheesy ads, showing perfect couples in perfect homes with their happy kids, or champagne bottles wearing Santa hats, he’s not cut out for the modern age. Hence why two barely out of college kids won’t hire him, and an old friend won’t give him more than an unpaid internship. Unfortunately, this means him, his wife and their son have to downsize, leaving their beautiful apartment in Barcelona and cutting luxuries like their maid, private tuition and a fancy car. High-fliers Tomas and Lara (Casas and Cusí) soon snap up the place and make it their own. Luckily, for Javier, they haven’t changed the locks, and it’s not long before he infiltrates his former house to find ways to work himself into Tomas’ life. It’s a life he has sold many times before, one he had and one he will stop at nothing to get back.
The most obvious thing that separates The Occupant from the movies mentioned above is this one concentrates on the dangerous stranger. This decision is immediately interesting since it makes us a part of his crimes. Though I think it’d benefit from being a full perspective piece, with the scenes Javier’s not present seeming as if they got added for plot convenience, it nevertheless puts viewers in an interesting position. We’re complicit. We know what he’s doing is wrong, and only gets more so as it goes on, yet there were moments I felt worried for Javier as he risked getting rumbled. I didn’t want him to get caught. Perhaps it’s because neither Tomas nor Lara are especially likeable, with him having secrets of his own beneath the façade, or me being a sucker for a caper. Maybe it’s also because Javier’s motivation is grounded in something relatable: insecurity about aspiring to a lifestyle he’s always sold. Regardless, for much of the first half when he “befriended” Tomas at a rehab group, I found myself invested in Javier’s success. However, the longer it went on, the more pedestrian the plot becomes. The plot beats you’d expect are there, but they come in slightly later than usual and more muted than they could be – meaning it never achieves the intensity it should. The slow burn fails to catch fire.
It’s good that The Occupant takes its time to let us get to know Javier and the pain of him losing his status. He’s a man increasingly out of time with a world he once excelled in, and that can be easy. However, the characters-first approach makes it even more frustrating that his manipulation is so blatant. There’s always a bit of an on-rails feels to this kind of film, given the sub-genre template makes it inevitable the character will keep upping the ante ‘til they win or die. In that respect, the tension should come from how many plates they can spin before they come crashing down. It has to exceed our expectations rather than fail them, which this one does as Javier’s underwhelming, and heavily signposted, plan is carried out. For this narrative style to work, we have to be able to buy that they’re convincing enough to con their unsuspecting victims and revel in seeing them do it. But Tomas and Lara are too trusting from the get-go. And not in a way that aids the themes, like Parasite using the upper classes’ gullibility to further how dependent they are on their staff. That Javier can infiltrate them with an email sent from Tomas’ phone just isn’t credible, and nor is the fallout from it.
Consequently, a movie that#s initially quite intriguing becomes yell-at-the-telly frustrating to watch. There isn’t the satisfaction of seeing Javier earn access by masterfully wrapping the couple round his finger since the storytelling rests far more on their stupidity rather than his slyness. A farcical subplot involving a paedophile gardener is also way too outlandish for the film its in. The position this part puts Javier in, plus its resolution, are far too bizarre to fit in with the world writers/ directors David and Àlex Pastor have crafted. As are the absurd final five minutes, that hint at a black comedy streak we have scarcely glimpsed until they happen. The groundwork is there, though the tonal jump is too jarring. Like the images Javier has spent his life creating, it doesn’t feel real. It’s also not very memorable – a day on, and despite my extensive notes I’m struggling to recall large sections of it. Heck, it could even achieve the impressive feat of being a film you’ll forget you ever saw whilst it’s still on. I’m glad to see this type of film when it’s done well, if mostly for nostalgia. Unfortunately, and ironically, it like seems a dinosaur in a genre that’s moved on.