'The Rental': Film Review

Courtesy of IFC Films
Alison Brie in 'The Rental'
A small but satisfying slice of indie horror.
7/24/2020

Dave Franco's directorial debut stars Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Jeremy Allen White and Sheila Vand as two couples whose celebratory weekend trip goes horrifically awry.

A Pacific Northwest weekend getaway goes from mildly awkward to bloodcurdlingly horrific in The Rental, Dave Franco's small but spiffy directorial debut. Freshening up the usual thrills-and-chills formula with a fine cast and some bracingly dysfunctional character dynamics, the film offers that masochistically pleasurable spectacle of people unraveling while a stalker lurks in the shadows watching — and in this case, recording — their every bad decision. The IFC release doesn't break any ground, but it's a confident, enjoyably nasty piece of work, unnerving enough to cure your FOMO about that canceled summer vacation.

The Rental was co-written by Franco and prolific indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas, Drinking Buddies), and the latter's mumblecore-ish mark is evident: The movie bears familiar home-invasion genre trappings — beautiful house, creepy landlord, missing pet — but it's heavy on talk, as well as classic Swanbergian themes of romantic angst, yuppie self-absorption, infidelity and guilt. The result is an occasionally awkward but mostly assured hybrid of horror and chamber dramedy.

The story of two couples (Dan Stevens and Alison Brie; Jeremy Allen White and Sheila Vand) reeling from the realization that the house they're renting is rife with hidden cameras, the film picks over well-worn ideas about the toxic impact of technology on modern life. And its sprinkle of topicality (narrative triggers involving race and class) is just that — a sprinkle. But The Rental succeeds in keeping you off-balance, lulling you into a false sense of knowing where it's going. And, at 88 minutes, the movie boasts a merciful clarity and compactness; it's refreshingly free of the "huh?" plot contortions and expository gobbledygook that often strangle the fun out of horror films. As real-estate-driven nightmares go, this is a smoother, smarter entry than recent Blumhouse thriller You Should Have Left.

The movie's build-up is effective, gathering little bubbles of tension — sexual, fraternal, racial, socioeconomic — into a percolating unease. Charlie (Stevens) and Mina (Vand) are business partners whose start-up has just hit some vague but significant milestone. The two have a clear attraction to one another, complicated by the fact that Mina is dating Charlie's brother Josh (White), a good-natured underachiever who drives Lyft for cash and recently completed a stint in jail. Oh, and Charlie has an adoring wife, Michelle (Brie).

It's a sizable chunk of backstory, and early dialogue has a bit of the goofy, overly deliberate quality that’s a byproduct of needing to bring the viewer up to speed quickly. The appealing, persuasive actors and crisp framing and cutting keep things from sliding toward giggle-inducing clunkiness.

Looking to celebrate his and Mina's professional breakthrough, Charlie books a house on the Oregon coast for the two couples. The first hiccup comes when Josh flouts the renters' rules by bringing along his adorable French bulldog, Reggie — much to Charlie's irritation. The casting of Stevens and White as brothers strains credulity at first; the former's lanky, fine-boned elegance (accentuated by the occasional trace of his English accent) and the latter's stockier build and coarser charisma seem derived from different gene pools. But the incongruity gradually begins to make sense. The actors establish a credible golden-boy-vs.-screw-up sibling vibe, with Charlie's contempt for Josh and Josh's resentment of Charlie sublimated into a kind of performative affection (lots of bro-y banter and rough-housing).

On the drive out to the house, Mina mentions that her reservation request was denied while Charlie's subsequent inquiry was approved. She suggests that it's because of her Middle Eastern surname. Charlie, ever the mansplainer, dismisses the notion: "Look, discrimination obviously exists…but why jump to that as the only possible explanation?" (The film relies on Stevens' natural charm to prevent you from immediately realizing just how insufferable Charlie is.)

The foursome arrive at their destination, oohing and aahing at the dreamy, fog-cloaked cliffside manse overlooking the lashing waves below. Soon they're met by Taylor (an excellent Toby Huss, mixing macho menace with seething passive-aggressiveness), the brother of the property's owner. There's a squirmy exchange in which Mina makes a tactlessly snobby comment and Taylor responds with a more intentionally provocative racist innuendo.

Later, during a stroll on the beach, Josh and Michelle hang back watching their significant others frolic ahead. "They can be intense," Michelle remarks, before reassuring Josh: "Don't worry, it gets less weird." The threat of betrayal adds an extra shiver of dread to the proceedings (as does Mina's lingering discomfort staying in the house of a bigot — and her white companions' refusal to truly acknowledge that discomfort).

Indeed, much of the patiently wrought suspense in The Rental comes not from whether the house is haunted or Taylor is a psycho, etc., but from the possibility that Charlie and Mina will act on their flirtation. Stevens is good at playing a cad in denial about the fact that he's a cad (his campy, scheming Russian crooner in Netflix's Eurovision was a far nicer guy), while Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) convincingly suggests Mina's conflicting impulses.

Before long, a little bag of drugs and a soak in the hot tub are precipitating the story's turn toward disaster. (Think Sliver plus Shallow Grave multiplied by Halloween.) Franco doesn't try to blow your mind, and that's OK; the sense of sleek, controlled craftsmanship is satisfying enough. There are a few well-deployed red herrings and jump scares; solid work from DP Christian Sprenger, who makes particularly evocative use of insidious long shots; a nerve-wracking, quietly propulsive score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans; and a deftly staged and edited climax that takes full advantage of the location's interior and exterior spaces.

There's also an appealing tonal suppleness, with jolts of comedy punctuating the anxious mood: As played by the terrific Brie with her trademark chirpy patrician cadences, Michelle getting high is a hoot. Such emphasis on performance and character, rather than cheap shocks, is part of what distinguishes The Rental. Hardcore horror fans may be disappointed by the film's relative modesty, but the rest of us can look forward to Franco's next directorial move.

Production companies: Black Bear Pictures
Distributor: IFC Films (select indoor theaters, drive-ins and on demand)
Director: Dave Franco
Screenwriters: Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg
Cast: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss
Producers: Dave Franco, Elizabeth Haggard, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Joe Swanberg, Christopher Storer
Executive producers: Michael Heimler, Sean Durkin
Director of photography: Christian Sprenger
Production designer: Meredith Lippincott

Costume designer: Kameron Lennox
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Editor: Kyle Reiter

Rated R, 88 minutes