Originally released in 2011, Occupied is an interesting but ultimately frustrating exercise in exploring a descent into madness. The movie’s faults lie principally with writer-director Mollie Binkley. Binkley does show a knack for effectively handling actors and a certain flair for writing intense scenes, but her use of visual metaphor to convey the nature of madness does not work. As a result, Occupied does not meet the needs of the audience and thus does not work as worthwhile entertainment.
Exploring the nature of madness has been attempted in movies before. Perhaps the best examples of such exploration include 1965’s Repulsion and to a lesser extent 2010’s Shutter Island. Occupied is not as stylish as Repulsion, with the former going for a more straightforward and drama-driven exploration of insanity. However, Roman Polanski provides enough information for the audience to understand the source of madness for Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) in Repulsion. The same cannot be said for the protagonist of Occupied.
Occupied tells the story of Sarah (Liza Binkley), a 20-year-old college student majoring in creative writing (poetry). Sarah is taking some time away from school and she agrees to babysit her cousin, Charlotte, who lives in a small cabin in the redwoods above Silicon Valley. Charlotte (Lucy Bock), who is about six or seven years old, lives alone a lot of the time, as her mother has passed away and her father is either often on travel or locked away in his office. Indeed, the father is not all the stable, as he always keeps his office/bedroom locked and has placed several security cameras about the place.
At first the story seems to focus on who is watching the two girls, as the cameras fluctuate from third-person omniscient view to views from the cameras, as if someone is checking on the pair (the movie’s code returns to this theme, as the watcher rewinds the footage). But the story quickly switches to the story of Sarah, who although at first puts on a brave face slowly begins to fall apart. The implications are that Sarah broke up with her boyfriend (maybe even her fiancée?) and perhaps even killed him. Distraught, Sarah’s horrible memories of past events are triggered by things she sees inside the cabin and its pleasant surroundings.
As Sarah begins to lose touch with reality, Charlotte begins to panic, at length running away from the cabin and hiding in a place she calls “The Cathedral,” a collection of tall trees not too far from the cabin. There, she records herself on a camcorder, asking her dead mother for help. Meanwhile, Sarah’s descent into madness—and an obsession with water that is never made clear—has her commit suicide by having her dip her feet into a kitchen sink filled with water while she places her finger into an electric socket. So ends the movie.
Although the story’s overall structure is good and both girls turn in strong performances, Occupied remains a frustrating film principally because there are few narrative strings that hint at the reasons why Sarah has succumbed to insanity and even suicide. Writer-director Mollie Binkley assembles and then repeats key visuals that metaphorically should present the reasons as to why Sarah has become the way she is, but the visuals do not collectively present a narrative, as they are simply too abstract. There are also keys within Sarah’s poetry notebook, but the film flashes too quickly for viewers to read some of the words. I even paused the movie during a second viewing just to read the entries in the notebook—I found nothing that helped me understand Sarah’s psyche or the reasons for her psychotic break.
I really wanted to like Occupied, particularly because the two lead actresses did a commendable job with the material they were given. Liza Binkley has a difficult role in Sarah, but she carried it through all the way. And Lucy Bock as Charlotte is incredible—her demons are more suppressed, and it is truly heart wrenching when she finds herself alone in the woods after having watched her cousin fall apart. Despite these performances, I cannot recommend Occupied, as most will find it an exercise in frustration. If you unlock any of the “whys?” behind Occupied, share them below.