THE RENTAL: Fun Summer Suspense that Never Outstays its Welcome

Dave Franco’s debut feature is sharp, short, and satisfying–perfect for our stay-at-home Summer

One of the things I love so much about horror films is the open promise they make with their audience: “come, and you’ll be scared.” The best tension — and others’ failure — comes from how that promise is fulfilled, with that anticipated terrifying release delightfully dangling over our heads like a coming storm. The latest spread of meta-horror like Ready or Not or You’re Next have taken that further, acknowledging our expectations right out the gate only to damn them to hell.

As alien as vacationing during COVID-19 may seem, The Rental asks its audience to recognize how we place a similar kind of trust in vacation properties. From hotel rooms to random listings on AirBNB, rentals are places where we trust we can rest our head for a night far from home — they’re places we can be just as vulnerable. With a legacy stretching from Psycho to Vacancy, they’re naturally the perfect place to stage a horror flick. The Rental continues that tradition wholeheartedly — and while it may not wholly escape the shadow of its predecessors, director and co-writer Franco uses those influences to create a debut feature that’s satisfying and subversive.

The Rental follows Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), who decide to book a couples’ weekend away with their significant others after their startup is successfully funded. Charlie’s girlfriend, Michelle (Alison Brie), is excited for his success — but with Mina joining, so will her boyfriend…Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Fresh from a prison stint after a frat night gone wrong, Josh’s paroled life turned around after Charlie introduced him to Mina. It’s a match made in heaven, it seems, through Charlie and Michelle are skeptical of just how long they’ll last. The four head to their rental, a stunning cliffside bungalow off the Pacific Coast. It isn’t long, though, tensions rise between our group and the creepy property caretaker — who might just be spying on them from afar as deeper rifts between the four slowly come to light.

Much like similar outings by Joe Swanberg (who co-wrote the film with Easy collaborator Franco), The Rental packs an organically flowing yet taut and compelling story into a breathlessly brief runtime. We’re dropped into the titular rental beach house before the 10-minute marker, and even before then Franco and Swanberg have packed in enough seeds for relationship tension that will take root over the course of the film. There’s Charlie and Josh’s animus, potential workplace romance between Charlie and Mina, even called-out discrimination when Iranian Mina confronts rental owner Taylor for cancelling her reservation in favor of white, affluent-looking Charlie’s. These storylines are strong enough in their own right to power the mumblecore drama its creators are known for, long before the film eventually steps into genre territory.

The descent of The Rental is wholly in the control of its ensemble cast, all who relish their opportunity to dance along a spectrum of secrets and questionable morality. Dan Stevens’ regular charm takes a wonderfully toxic turn here, one that easily exploits the weaknesses of the other characters in such a smug Silicon Valley way. Alison Brie’s Michelle has an innocence that simmers into anger as she’s forced further out of the other characters’ orbits. Sheila Vand’s Mina struggles with a regret she must keep silent so that she doesn’t blow the dynamics of the group apart. The surprise of the four, though, is Jeremy Allen White’s Josh — he feels like even more of an outsider given everyone else’s wild success during his time in jail, and his earnestness to fit in betrays his own growing insecurities about life passing him by.

The Rental’s greatest strength is in how Franco plays all of these buried anxieties against each other, creating a horror movie out of their social interactions before it actually becomes one. What’s more, it’s these moments that dance around each other’s secrets that lay the foundation for later genre trappings — making classic tropes as refusing to call the cops or an inability to flee to safety feel like organic decisions rather than obligations.

As mentioned, The Rental is a film about trust — and what makes Franco’s film so memorable is how much value he places in the trust his audience gives him. There’s admittedly nothing too unique about The Rental’s premise — but as the film soldiers on and secrets are laid bare, Franco eagerly takes the opportunity to build upon that familiarity to create something truly new and rewarding. Franco’s direction notably grows more confident as The Rental progresses, playing into a patient dread that’s soaked into each moment along with an excitement to cut away just when a gasp is lodged in your throat. From deliberately undercut reveals to sudden left-field shocks, Franco’s eager to play with his audience but never chooses to betray them.

With a sharp story that delightfully remixes all-too-familiar slasher elements, anchored by four compelling performances, The Rental is a strong debut from Dave Franco that makes for satisfying summer viewing.

The Rental hits theaters, drive-ins, and VOD rental July 24th courtesy of IFC Films.

Previous post Two Cents Tracks Down a LOST BULLET
Next post Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, Part 2: THE WAY OF THE DRAGON & ENTER THE DRAGON