2020 Film Reviews

Review: Dave Franco’s ‘The Rental’

The Rental Movie Film

Before COVID-19 made theatrical moviegoing impossible, the crowded landscape for horror films was tenable. Now, it’s a bloodbath of smaller films fighting for rental dollars. A24 has its cache of elevated horror films, while Blumhouse sates the market for fans of mainstream slashers. Then there’s a film like Dave Franco’s The Rental, which couches familiar genre tropes with a pressing thought in the 21st century: why do we trust our lives with these random owners from the internet? It’s only by fate that The Rental got released during a pandemic that’s changed how we all live, but it’s also a welcome reminder that sometimes it’s not safe to leave your house.

As Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) browse for weekend rentals, their body language intimates that they’re together. When Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), comes in and kisses Mina hello, it’s clear the brothers harbor some issues. Mina and Charlie are tight-knit business partners, and after months of 80-hour weeks, they are due for a break. For both couples, a restful weekend together is all they want, even if it seems more likely to blow up in their faces. Michelle (Alison Brie) is glad that Mina turned Josh’s life around, and Charlie should feel the same way. Instead, her husband feels like Mina is too good for his ex-con brother.

They arrive at the oceanside getaway enthralled with the house, but the caretaker (Toby Huss) soon changes matters. His casual racism toward Mina is concerning, though the other sweep it under the rug. Mina brings up that she and Charlie both applied for the rental, but he only accepted Charlie’s offer. Huss’ character offers a pathetic excuse which infuriates Mina. She wants to leave but relents after the other three tell her to enjoy the weekend — a prospect made easier if the caretaker weren’t so comfortable with coming and going through the rental at will.

Don’t expect things to get frightening quickly, however, as the drama between brothers and their partners unfolds for another whole act. If The Rental sounds like a chronicle of the bourgeoisie, it’s because it largely is (this is where co-writer Joe Swanberg’s presence is most keenly felt). Horror can only work when there’s an investment in the characters, which Franco heeds. As a first-time director, he spends most of the running time developing his four leads. Stakes are low as the cracks deepen between two couples, but once Franco drops the hammer, the results are gruesome.

The Rental Movie Film

The Rental’s cast is solid, led by familiar faces Stevens (Eurovision Song Contest), Brie (GLOW) and White (Shameless), yet the breakout is Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), who carries the film’s narrative load. As a woman of color, Mina deals with racists constantly, but it’s clear the caretaker is more nefarious than that. The onus unfairly falls on Mina to convince the too accommodating Charlie that something is wrong. The angst in Vand’s performance is palpable as she faces tribulations that Charlie, Josh and Michelle never deal with. As a woman of color, even one with money, Mina can’t shake the feeling she’s being targeted. Rather than considering her perspective, the others tell her to suck it up. Considering Mina was right to want to ditch the rental, it’s an injustice that repeats itself as she fights for her life.

Now, The Rental isn’t just a miserable affair; Franco uses smash cuts as a comedic relief valve in several instances before the film ramps up the scares. One sequence features a very-high Michelle doing her best to keep it together while everything goes to hell around her. Charlie also hilariously dances with a dog while high on ecstasy. Sure, doing ecstasy in a strange rental isn’t ideal, but it’s a device best used to explain why the couples don’t pick up all the odd things going on.

The Rental excels with its cinematography. One of the best moves any new director can make is hiring a great cameraman, and Franco did just that by hiring Atlanta‘s Christian Sprenger. Those who’ve seen the “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta already knew that Sprenger can effectively set up a haunting atmosphere, and he  uses pervasive fog and picturesque surroundings in The Rental to create a look that is simultaneously ominous and beautiful. Danger lurks literally everywhere, a fear Franco and Swanberg play on once the weekenders realize they’re not alone.

The Rental Movie Film

Franco displays promise in his first attempt at feature filmmaking, and I look forward to his next effort. The ideas present are intriguing, howeverThe Rental’s ultimate staying power is questionable. Everything is competently directed, but Franco’s work misses the spark that iconic horror films possess. Because The Rental treads over so much previously covered territory, there’s nothing to learn. The cost of character-building for most of the film also means that genre fans might grow impatient. Slow burns are fairly common for contemporary horror films, but eventually must scare the audience. Franco and Swanberg provide a social commentary late in the feature that additional screen-time would have fleshed out, but their central message about the fear of being watched is redundant in a world where Black Mirror already exists.

Follow Colin Biggs on Twitter @wordsbycbiggs.

2 replies »