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The Rental Review

July 24, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
The Rental Allison Brie
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The Rental Review  

Directed by: Dave Franco
Written by: Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg

Dan Stevens – Charlie
Alison Brie – Michelle
Sheila Vand – Mina
Jeremy Allen White – Josh
Toby Huss – Taylor
Connie Wellman – Apartment Owner

Running Time: 88 minutes
Rated R for violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexuality.

It seems both a bit strange and oddly appropriate to me that as America remains largely at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, horror films about taking a vacation are on the rise. The year has seen a host of such films; there was wintery cabin in the woods indie darling The Lodge to kick us off, and the past month has seen no less than four such films arrive. The first was the Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried-fronted You Should Have Left, which was followed by this month’s Norwegian fight flick Lake of Death as well as The Beach House, both debuting on Shudder. That latter film saw two couples confront an external threat while sharing a vacation home somewhere along the coast, turning what started as a relationship drama into a fight for their lives.

The latest, Dave Franco’s The Rental, shares that general concept but in a vastly different way. Franco, best known for his work in front of the camera, makes his directorial debut with this most modern of horror flicks: the Airbnb slasher film. Frankly, it seems like a surprise this kind of film hasn’t happened sooner, but maybe it was just waiting for someone with Franco’s impressively deft hand to bring it to life.

The film stars Dan Stevens and Sheila Vand as Charlie and Mina, business partners in a start-up company. Charlie and Mina have just received the seed money they need to get their business off the ground and to celebrate, they decide to book an Airbnb on the Oregon coast to celebrate along with their romantic partners: Charlie’s supportive wife Michelle (Brie), and Mina’s boyfriend Josh (White), who’s also Charlie’s brother.

As the foursome prepare and then head out, a touch of natural conflict within the foursome becomes evident. Charlie and Michelle are a bit judgmental of Josh, who has some anger issues that caused him to do some jail time. Meanwhile, the closeness between Charlie and Mina, which is apparent from the very first frame of them together, is a source of insecurity for both Michelle and Josh. Michelle brushes it off at one point during a walk on the beach, telling Josh, “They have their creativity going on.” But before that, we see her lying next to Charlie in bed as he obliviously says of Josh and Mina, “Of course he loves her — he hit the fucking jackpot.” Her reaction, while muted, doesn’t entirely indicate a complete level of comfort with that kind of statement.

The interpersonal tension, which comes off as subtle and very real thanks to the performances, is put to the test once they arrive at the titular house. Their interactions with the landlord Taylor (Huss) are rocky, particularly when he’s called out as racist for refusing Mina’s application (her surname is Mohammadi) but accepting Charlie’s. Josh has also decided to bring his adorable bulldog despite the house’s “no pets” policy, which irks Charlie. Despite their attempts to set all that aside and enjoy themselves, things get serious when Mina discovers hidden cameras in the house, and the dog vanishes. Is Taylor terrorizing them, or is something worse going on? And can the foursome keep secrets hidden long enough to survive the weekend?

Franco is of course best known for his on-screen work, mostly comedic such as The Little Hours, Neighbors, Warm Bodies, and dramedy The Disaster Artist. All that time spent on film sets has clearly been to his benefit as a filmmaker, as he comes out swinging confidently with his first film behind the camera here.

Franco co-wrote the film with mumblecore icon Joe Swanberg, and the script is very well-polished in how it lays out the characters. Charlie, Michelle, Mina, and Josh feel and talk very much like people who exist in the real world; nothing in their dialogue feels inauthentic. The screenplay lays the groundwork for the characters without the need for too much exposition, and we learn far more about them through the actor’s performances and little hints in the dialogue than any amount of explained backstory.

That gives the film a very lived-in feel that grounds it, allowing Franco to ramp things up as the film progresses into the horror aspects. Franco has a knack here for letting things build slowly without the pace seeming glacial. He invests the film with a slow-burning tension, establishing the isolation of the setting in the film’s first shows and following that up with little moments here and there to keep the viewer in a sense of unease.

The cast is particularly game for supporting Franco’s efforts here. Stevens is a genre vet, known for his work in FX’s trippy X-Men series Legion and the Adam Wingard thriller The Room as much as he is for his work in Downton Abbey. Stevens is playing a character with pretty questionable morals here; Charlie is a jerk whose true colors start to emerge pretty quickly. It is Stevens’ charisma that makes him likeable and relatable at all, and he does fine work in presenting Charlie as someone we can potentially be sympathetic too. Mina is presented in a more sympathetic light, but she has her flaws too, and Vand does her best to make the character relatable.

Arguably, the hardest work falls on Brie and White, who are tasked with showing why we should care about their characters’ partners. Brie makes a solid return to the genre nine years after her deliciously bitchy press agent in Scream 4; Michelle is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film and we get what she’s going through, though she’s no flawless character herself. Josh is a bit more of a trope as a slacker layabout, but we relate to him in how he loves his brother and Mina. White lets us see something more beneath the surface here in his vulnerabilities and insecurities, mostly relating to Mina.

Franco’s concept here is a pretty ingenious one, all things considered. The idea of Airbnb is rife for horror mining, much like Eli Roth did with the idea of hostels 15 years ago. Renting out the home of someone you’ve never met based on online reviews is a pretty perfect setup that Franco is able to utilize well, creating a picturesque setting thanks to the southern Oregon coastline with just enough there to prove unsettling in the right moments. His cinematographer Christian Sprenger is best known for television, including FX’s Atlanta and Brie’s GLOW, and he stretches his boundaries nicely here as he captures some gorgeous scenery and manages some tricky moments of tension and horror quite well.

As much as the film succeeds in its build, the movie does trip itself up a bit in the final act. Part of this is in the villain, who seems awfully generic. To be clear, part of that is intentional but there’s also a sense of menace lacking from the person who stalks our protagonist. As the horror really starts to escalate, Franco keeps a tight restraint on a movie that seems like it would do better to go off the rails just a bit.

The final act is also hurt a touch by the way plot threads fall apart a bit. A search through the house proves to be fruitless and mentioned at the end just to clean up threads. It’s all narratively logical, but it does seem to be a somewhat clumsy way to get people to split up, and one split in particular just doesn’t seem believable.

But despite the somewhat shaky final act, there’s still a lot of good stuff going on here. Franco knows his cast well and guides them to some fine performances, and the goodwill built up in the first two acts isn’t completely lost by any measure. There’s a coda that suggests this film could have a sequel if so inclined, but as a one-and-done this is a satisfying and engaging modern twist on the home invasion and slasher genres.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Dave Franco's directorial debut The Rental is a tense, creepy horror-thriller with an enticingly current twist. The small cast delivers with great performances and Franco builds up enough currency in the first two acts that it still stands up after the third act stumbles a bit. It's a promising start as a filmmaker and a worthy entry into the vacation horror genre that is increasingly dominating 2020.

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The Rental, Jeremy Thomas