Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, co-written with indie filmmaking icon and Fantastic Fest boxing champ Joe Swanberg, feels like a cheap set-up for a goofy joke about the online hospitality marketplace: “Just when you thought it was safe to visit an Airbnb.” Four lovely young people—Charlie (Dan Stevens), Michelle (Alison Brie), Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and Mina (Sheila Vand)—take a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip to a remote and well-appointed cliffside pad rented out by Taylor (Toby Huss), or really by his brother. Taylor’s just the caretaker. He’s also racist, which makes for an awkward introduction, he might be a psycho and he’s spying on his guests.
If there’s a faster route to a 1 star rating, it’s putting cameras in the shower heads for fun and perversion, but in Taylor’s defense, the protagonists make lousy guests. In addition to a baggie full of Molly and Josh and Mina’s dog despite the “no pets allowed” clause, they’ve all brought their interpersonal baggage with them: Charlie works with Mina, but their mutual professional admiration has churned into simmering sexual tension, which is a problem because Charlie’s married to Michelle, Mina is Josh’s girlfriend and, for the cherry on top, Josh is Charlie’s brother. To Franco and Swanberg’s credit, at least their characters each have just enough substance that they’re recognizably human, so unlike the average slasher film or grimy thriller, there’s reason to care about what they do to each other, and what’s done to them in exchange.
But for an 80-minute movie, The Rental goes slack too often, a likely byproduct of the meandering blather wound around Swanberg’s mumblecore roots. For as much as these characters hide from one another, the secrets aren’t particularly juicy, and for that matter their motivations are dry. Charlie fumes at Josh when, halfway through the film, Josh reveals to Michelle that his brother has a history of stepping into new relationships while still participating in current ones. But apart from a few stray hurt glances and one marital talk between husband and wife, Josh’s mouthiness doesn’t actually do anything for the plot. Instead it satisfies mumblecore’s need for people to talk off the cuff and not about anything interesting or fundamental to the narrative.
What is fundamental is infidelity, so when Franco hangs his scenes on Charlie and Mina’s nerves, their utter fear of being found out, The Rental tightens its grip. When they realize that they’re under surveillance, the tension doubles. They’re aware someone has their eyes on them, and that being watched means being found out. Every move Charlie and Mina make after their discovery has a wicked double meaning: The collective is under unknown threat, but Charlie and Mina are under the very known threat of being found out by their significant others, because finding out that someone is recording your every move on video isn’t awful enough when you haven’t fucked someone you shouldn’t.
Franco doesn’t make this the focal point of The Rental’s tension until deep into the narrative, only hinting at it up to the moment Mina notices the shower cam. The film opens on her cozied up with Charlie, gazing at the house on his computer and agonizing over whether to book it or not. Enter Josh camera left, and the dynamic shifts to he and Mina sharing a kiss hello, which briefly calls into question her proximity to Charlie. But Franco lets that thread vanish when it should dangle. His reintroduction of that moment feels abrupt: The subtext becomes text before the subtext gets a chance to sink in. For an ex-con, Josh is remarkably flat, and Michelle has zero personality traits outside of heaps of stress and an overwhelming need to take drugs and blow off steam. They’re presences in the script, but Charlie and Mina are given more definition by far, which works against Franco’s careful craftsmanship as he builds suspense and repeatedly applies fresh coats of menace to his setting.
The Rental has De Palma vibes with Fincher’s cool, but lacks the former’s exploitative pleasures and the latter’s cinematic expertise. It is, however, satisfyingly composed in terms of approach, giving the audience flashes of brutality to come or shooting it from a distance, heightening the shock and lending bloodshed sharp flinching power. It’s the inconsistency of the hook that trips up Franco and imposes the effects of inertia on his story. His understanding of how thrillers tick when the implicit becomes explicit is easy to appreciate, but his wavering on when to pull the trigger, whether on his narrative or characters or even the act of violence, conveys hesitation, as if Franco’s short on confidence. In a way that’s refreshing: Men walk behind the camera for the first time with swagger belying their inexperience, which is rarely not annoying. But The Rental has enough going for it that it could use more confidence in its unifying plot elements. It’s a case where less is actually just that.
Director: Dave Franco
Writer: Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg
Starring: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss
Release Date: July 24, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.