David and lex Pastor's Spanish drama The Occupant (Hogar) starts as an intriguing, and sharply observed portrait of middle-age frustration and failure in an unforgiving culture of materialism and competition before morphing into a thriller that increasingly defies credulity. The first half is much better than the second.
I am aware and usually comfortable with the genre's need to stretch the bounds of reality and request that we sometimes suspend our disbelief, especially when complex schemes are put in motion. But, by the time you get to the end of The Occupant, you can't help but roll your eyes at how precisely the protagonist's plan works out, even when it requires that he predict exact behaviors from other characters that, frankly, don't seem all that predictable. There is a fine line between the giddy pleasures of an almost impossible clockwork scheme clicking into place and the frustration of watching one that just seems impossible.
But, we're getting ahead of ourselves. The first part of the film, as I mentioned, is quite good, with a solid performance by Javier Gutirrez as Javier Muoz, an advertising executive in his mid-40s who has fallen on hard times. When we first meet him, he is interviewing for a job that is clearly well below his qualifications and experience, but he is desperate enough to seek it anyway. He left his previous employment under ambiguous circumstances (it seems like he was fired, but he tries to explain it as his wanting to shake things up and go a new direction). But, now he is finding it impossible to land a job because he is competing against younger and hungrier creatives who are willing to work for less money. Each interview he sits for turns into a mini-drama of humiliation, and Gutirrez shows us how hard Javier must work to keep his disappointment and growing resentment bottled up while in the presence of others.
His failure to find employment means that his wife, Marga (Ruth Daz), must get a job as a cleaner, and his preteen son, Dani (Cristian Muoz), must leave his posh private school for a public one. They eventually have to leave their prized apartment in downtown Madrid, which is sprawling, centrally located, and offers a beautiful view of the city. It is their home, yes, but more: To Javier, it is a tangible embodiment of his success (the film's original Spanish title, Hogar, means "Home"), and thus his having to give it up to move to a smaller, less elegant apartment is a tangible embodiment of his failure. That failure is then compounded when he sees his old apartment's new tenants, a handsome, younger man named Toms (Mario Casas), who works as an executive for a massive communications company and is therefore precisely the kind of person to whom Javier now feels that he is losing. Toms has a beautiful wife named Lara (Bruna Cus) and a precocious daughter named Mnica (Iris Valls Torres), whose shelf of ballet trophies reminds Javier that his own son is overweight and socially outcast. In other words, Javier comes to resent everything in his own life and envy Toms's.
So, it is not surprising that he becomes obsessed with Toms and his family, and his first violation is to enter their apartment using his old key. He doesn't just invade their physical space, though, as he soon learns that Toms is a recovering alcoholic, meaning that his seemingly picture-perfect life is not without its flaws-flaws that Javier determines to be exploitable. Javier starts attending Toms's Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, posing as a stranger and pretending to be an recovering addict so that he can slowly insert himself into Toms's life by asking him to be his sponsor. Knowing what he knows about Toms, he is able to say just the right things, and soon he is having dinner at his-former-and-now-Toms's apartment.
At this point, we don't really know what Javier's end game is because he remains largely enigmatic. We know the parameters of his frustrations with his own life and why he envies Toms's, but what, exactly, he is up to doesn't start coming fully into focus until the film's last third, when it becomes clear that he doesn't just want to ruin Toms's life-he wants to literally replace him. That requires a complex scheme involving plots and scenarios and lies and subterfuge that grows increasingly implausible as the film goes on. There are a few intriguing touches, such as Javier's having to deal with Damin (David Ramrez), the apartment complex's gardener who figures out what he is up to and starts blackmailing him in ways that are deeply unsettling. Because we don't know Javier's plans, some of his decisions seem to make no sense at first-such as deliberately crashing his car in a parking garage-and while they later fall into place, they fit too neatly and too snugly as part of Javier's masterplan. It strains credulity to the breaking point.
David and lex Pastor, who both wrote and directed, previously made two post-apocalyptic films about world-decimating pandemics, the Hollywood-produced Carriers (2009) with Chris Pine, and the Spanish/French coproduction The Last Days (Los ltimos das, 2013). They demonstrate some astute Hitchcockian flair, and they give the film a cool visual surface that keeps you engaged, but you can't help but resent just how patently absurd so much of the film turns out to be.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (2)
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