David and Àlex Pastor’s The Occupant on Netflix is a solid psycho-thriller about a man who loses a job, and loses it

The protagonist Javier's desperation underscores the fundamental truth about how many of us live: it’s not just about the job, it’s about a certain kind of lifestyle.

Baradwaj Rangan October 17, 2020 17:28:05 IST
David and Àlex Pastor’s The Occupant on Netflix is a solid psycho-thriller about a man who loses a job, and loses it

A still from The Occupant. Netflix

It can be tough for middle-aged men in job interviews, especially one where your potential employers are probably younger than the length of your career.

At the opening of David and Àlex Pastor's The Occupant, ad man Javier (Javier Gutiérrez) is trying to sell himself to the people at a young, creative hot-shop. He shows them his most famous commercial, one of those sun-drenched 30-second stretches that have improbably happy families in impossibly scenic settings: "The life you deserve" is the tagline. But the commercial was made in 1998, and the "kids" interviewing Javier seem torn between the impulses to snigger and yawn. They say the job is beneath him. He says he doesn't mind. But they were just being polite. The fact is that they don't want him.

This scene made me flash back to Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer, where the Dustin Hoffman character played another middle-aged ad man who interviews for a job that pays him less than what he used to earn. It’s a lesser position, too. The interviewer asks, “Mr. Kramer, do you mind if I ask why you are interested in a position for which you are clearly overqualified?” Dustin Hoffman looks him in the eye and says, simply, “I need the job.” Those four words contain everything from embarrassment to a bruised ego to desperation to a certain fundamental truth about the way many of us live: it’s not just about the job, it’s about a certain kind of lifestyle.

And Javier wants to maintain his lifestyle. He lives in a gorgeous apartment complex, and his more practical-minded wife (Marga, played by Ruth Díaz) says, “The rent here sucks us dry every month.” Javier refuses to consider moving. “It’s our home,” he says. Marga says, “They’re four walls, Javier. That’s it.” He agrees reluctantly to move to a building that diminishes his “lifestyle” in the eyes of others, but the older house now becomes an obsession. We realise that Javier has defined himself by the ability to afford that apartment, and now he’s diminished in his own eyes. And something snaps.

After months of rigorous art cinema (which is usually what you get when you look for “world cinema”), it was fun to watch something like The Occupant. It’s a psychological thriller that’s trashy enough to deliver those psychological thrills, yet deep enough to make us really care about the “bad guy”.

One of the most moving scenes in the movie has Javier enter his former apartment using his set of keys, and looking at how a new family has made his home theirs. Almost as an act of defiance, he snacks on their food. He takes a dump in their bathroom. Technically speaking, he is a dangerous stalker, a home invader. Emotionally speaking, though, he is a sad man with serious letting-go issues.

David and lex Pastors The Occupant on Netflix is a solid psychothriller about a man who loses a job and loses it

A still from The Occupant. Netflix

Perhaps my connect with Javier was also due to the fact that I am middle-aged, too, and in a profession increasingly populated by youngsters who’d cost far less to hire. What if I found myself out of a job? Sometimes while watching a film, a parallel film keeps running through your mind, and when Javier barges into an AA meeting (for reasons I won’t disclose), his speech is both psychotic (in the context of this particular story) and philosophical (for those of us thinking about the larger themes hidden beneath this particular story).

This is what he says: “I was really lost [last week], groping around with nothing to hold on to. But not anymore. You really helped me. Seriously. Now, I have a goal, a project I am going to put all my energy into. Yes, because you realise… At least in my case, I realised my real problem was apathy. You get comfortable, stop giving your best, and one day, they say you are old, you cost too much, and you find yourself out on your ear. But not anymore. I am done watching people enjoy things they don’t know how to appreciate and don’t deserve. So from now on, I’m going to grab life, my life, by the horns, without asking for permission or apologising.”

Of course, I hope I never reach a point where I grab life “by the horns” the way Javier does. Slowly, The Occupant reveals why it’s named that way. Javier wants not just to re-occupy his old house, but also “occupy” the family of the man who’s now living there. Remember the tagline of the ad he presented at the beginning? “The life you deserve…” Now re-read the speech above, especially the part where he says he is sick about “watching people enjoy things they don’t know how to appreciate and don’t deserve”. He becomes Travis Bickle for the white-collar set, determined to dispense vengeance to the “undeserving”.

Okay, Taxi Driver may be too lofty a comparison for what’s a much more basic film. It’s easier to reach for Fatal Attraction (spurned woman tries to “occupy” the man’s family) or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (a traumatised woman “occupies” the home of the woman who caused her husband to die by suicide) or Single White Female (a woman “occupies” the identity of her roommate) — only here, the occupier is a man.

The premise is all the more chilling because it could happen to any of us. You are denied something that you feel you deserve. And so, you decide you’ll go to any lengths to make things “right” again.

At one point, Javier’s deceit is discovered by the gardener at his old apartment complex. The man blackmails him. He wants a pair of underwear belonging to the little girl of the family that’s moved into the flat Javier used to live in. Javier tells him he is sick. The man laughs. He says, “Definitely. Do you think I didn’t know?” The implication is obvious. Who are you to judge me? Javier may not be a paedophile but he is sick in his own way, and what’s really dangerous is that he doesn’t know it. Given that the whole film is about what one deserves, you may wonder if Javier ends up with the punishment he so clearly deserves. I won’t say, but the closing scenes are oddly inspirational. You don’t want to ever be Javier, and yet...

The Occupant is streaming on Netflix.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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