At their best, horror movies about strange houses are really about the people in them. And for a while, Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, feels like it has taken that lesson to heart. Following two couples who decide on a whim to take a picturesque, remote vacation rental for the weekend, it builds suspense by playing its characters off one another while using the setting primarily as a convenient escalation device — at least, until everything dissipates in such a spectacularly unsatisfying fashion that you might wonder if you dreamed the whole thing.
The couples in question are tech start-up honcho Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), Charlie’s less slick, less financially successful younger brother, who is dating Mina (Sheila Vand), Charlie’s business partner. You might be able to guess the character dynamics from that brief description alone: Yes, Josh seems to have an inferiority complex around his more successful sibling, and, yes, there seems to be some extracurricular romantic tension between workmates Mina and Charlie (so much so that I assumed they were lovers after the opening scene). Do Michelle and Josh notice what’s clearly going on between their significant others? Michelle seems too accepting, too easygoing to acknowledge it, while Josh is maybe too anxious, too self-flagellating to do so.
Either way, the quartet’s weekend escape starts off on an awkward note when Mina becomes convinced that Taylor (Toby Huss), the gruff, vaguely creepy property manager, is bigoted toward her because of her Middle Eastern name. Things get a little more subtly gnarly when they realize Taylor just strolls into the rental whenever he wants to (an extremely relatable Airbnb fear). But it’s all suggested horror at first — we never actually see Taylor go into the house — which means that we’re always on the lookout, waiting for something to go wrong, whatever it might be. For a movie in which not much happens in the first half, The Rental manages to be admirably tense.
The real drama emerges from our four protagonists themselves. They may not be particularly likable, but they are recognizable, their passive-aggressive, first-do-no-harm demeanor toward each other clearly covering up all kinds of resentment and doubt. At first, their back-and-forth holds our interest because the underlying conflicts between them are teased rather than indulged. Stevens always brings a sly, hard-to-pinpoint sense of menace to his parts; he’s half-softie, half-predator. (This is why he made such a great faux romantic foil in the recent Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.) Here, we never quite know if Charlie is being earnest or calculating, and at times he seems, paradoxically, to be both. Vand, meanwhile, plays the much-put-upon Mina with a fine balance of stridency and vulnerability. When she confronts the property manager about his possible racism, we can’t quite tell if she’s doing so out of personal honor or a lack of control. That uncertainty feels intentional on the part of the filmmakers, and it also informs how we might interpret some of her later actions.
I know I’m being vague about The Rental’s plot. Not because it’s particularly original — it’s most certainly not — but because the movie actually hops subgenres, starting off as a psychological thriller, then turning into something far more paranoid, before settling for … well, I’ve already said too much, but things eventually go in what feels like a more basic and disappointing direction. Franco isn’t what I would call a rigorous director, but he demonstrates admirable control. He has a good grasp of the frame, and the possibility of suspense within it; I often found myself looking over characters’ shoulders, wondering if something would emerge from the deep, dark night behind them. He also makes sure to keep us quietly questioning the extent to which we can trust these people to begin with. In fact, that’s why some of the later scenes feel like such a letdown: The movie has put in too much work making us care about the fates of these characters for [redacted] to, well, [redacted] so [redacted]. There may be some existential meaning to The Rental’s abrupt, too easy ending. But if you ask me, I think Dave Franco ran out of money, time, and ideas.
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