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'The Current Occupant' Poses Thought-Provoking Questions, But Offers No Answers

July 29, 2020
2 min read time

The Current Occupant has a huge hook: it’s a movie about a man in an insane asylum who believes he’s President of the United States. It plays on internet conspiracy theories right and left, not to mention the merits of the 25th amendment—and what would happen if it were actually put into action. 

Where The Current Occupant falls short is perhaps its mandatory embrace of horror (and sometimes sci-fi) conventions that are the foundation of Hulu’s Into the Dark series of which it is a part. In fact, one could even go so far as to say the story is better suited to a straight-up psychological drama. This is a case where cross-genre bending and co-mingling perhaps went a little too far, and it feels as though there is no predominant genre steering the ship. A dangerous zone to fall in as a writer because if it’s not done right, the story feels unsure of itself.

Screenwriter Alston Ramsay worked on the script for a number of years, and one can’t help but wonder what might stand if the piece had been totally updated for where American politics are today. The audience is asked to sympathize with Henry Cameron (played by Barry Watson), who is the delusional protagonist/possible President of the United States. Creating audience empathy through rich backstory (Slight spoiler alert: there’s an assassination attempt in the past that caused Cameron to lose his wife and his sanity—at least, according to Cameron’s treating psychiatrist.) is an ideal screenwriting tool. The past trauma creates instant sympathy, and leaves the audience wanting more.

But the film avoids direct commentary on present day politics—one could argue making it more of an evergreen film—instead glossing over many of its alluring political themes in favor of psych-ward-gone-wrong type of scares. Again, an area where the writing could have leaned into more horror than psychological warfare scenarios. One cannot help but wonder how powerful it might’ve been had it asked the question: “What if the man in office was genuinely insane?” No sob story that got him to that point, just the man steering the ship is genuinely unfit for office. Sure, something would have to have driven him to insanity, but what if it didn’t stem from a terrible loss? What if it’s something within the character himself; a nature vs. nurture-type question.

The main setting of the film is instead simply Cameron’s psych ward and those around him: A fellow patient that jogs his memory about being President, which, in turn, leads to her demise. A very scary orderly played by Marvin Jones who whistles the Presidential march in the most unsettling manor, and continuously seemingly taunts Henry by calling him “chief.” And a lot of screen time is given to forced visual therapy that Henry must endure while his treating psychiatrist asks provocative questions such as, “Is it fundamentally good to empower an individual over the masses?

The film ultimately introduces excellent thought-provoking musings and themes, asking the audience to question a country valuing a nation above its people. It’s also undoubtedly a strong metaphor to draw the comparison of leadership ideals being brainwashed under lock and key. The Current Occupant also poses the question who is sane, who is insane, and—more importantly—who gets to answer this question on behalf of an incapacitated President. All these questions are not only valid, but debate-stirring. And perhaps with its minimalist approach, the questions posed pop even more, and get the viewer to think about them longer post-viewing than they otherwise would’ve, if hidden beneath layers of gore.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t leave time for the exploration of the debate as it instead weaves the audience through strange therapy sessions to throw them off the trail of deducing what might happen next, getting lost in its own myriad of genres. But maybe that’s exactly the point. There’s no right answer and open debate where all parties are fully present and willing to listen is what’s really about.

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