Dave Franco branches out into staycation horror in “The Rental”

The Rental Alison Brie as “Michelle” in Dave Franco’s THE RENTAL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Dave Franco kicks off his directorial career with an atmospheric if aimless vacation-thriller co-written by Joe Swanberg.

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While his older brother James has leveraged his own acting career into a string of ambitious, low-budget directorial efforts (Faulkner adaptations, The Disaster Artist) his little brother Dave Franco had yet to follow in his footsteps. But rather than exit the gate with pseudointellectual, self-serious pablum like his brother is often wont to do, the younger Franco has decided to lean into atmospheric horror with his debut, The Rental. The results are admirable, well-acted, and more than a little unsettling, even if it feels like a First Film, warts and all.

Designed for a bygone age where we used to feel comfortable going on vacations and renting other people’s homes, The Rental leans along familiar psycho-thriller setups in its premise: Two well-to-do couples decide to Airbnb a lovely, isolated cabin up the West Coast together, to kick off the launch of Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina’s (Sheila Vand) new start-up. In the opening scene, as they scroll through listings, Mina’s head on Charlie’s shoulder, you’d be forgiven for mistaking these two for a couple. Alas, they’re otherwise spoken for despite their white-hot sexual tension: Charlie’s girlfriend Michelle (Alison Brie) is lovely but uncomplicated, and Mina’s with Charlie’s just-out-of-jail brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White).

From the get, The Rental eases us into the sparseness of its script, co-written by Franco’s former Easy collaborator Joe Swanberg, already a master of mumblecore understatement. And indeed, much of the tension of the film’s first half involves the little melodramas that take place in their shared living space, far away from civilization and left with nothing but their own shaky interpersonal dynamics. Charlie and Mina’s lust for each other is palpable; Josh’s own aw-shucks brashness (and insistence on bringing his adorable pug) sometimes ruffles feathers and Mina bristles at the implicit racism of their creepy Airbnb host Taylor (Toby Huss). And that’s before they get hopped up on club drugs and start finding little surveillance cameras hidden throughout the house.

The Rental
The Rental (IFC Films)

Where The Rental shines is in the moments where Franco and co. really lean into the overarching paranoia that comes from our gig-economy reliance on the kindness of strangers, and our postmodern feeling of being watched from every corner of our existence. We as a society have never been more trusting of people we’ve never met getting into our cars and our homes, and vice versa. Franco and Swanberg play with that tension in occasionally intriguing ways, whether it’s charged conversations about terse online client-facing interactions or editor Kyle Reiter’s deliberate cuts to surveillance footage, reminding us that someone — including us — is watching our characters without them even knowing it.

That sense of voyeurism extends to our characters as well, as we’re privy to a host of unspoken resentments and could-have-beens that aren’t spelled out to us, but which summer beneath the surface. Everyone has history they’d rather not unload all at once, but it informs every charged glance and muttered half-joking jab, and the unwitting panopticon they find themselves in just draws out those open wounds into the light and throws a painful sprinkling of salt on it.

And to his credit, Franco’s enough of an actor’s actor to draw out effective performances from his sparse cast. Stevens is a genre stalwart as always, playing up that shark-eyed sociopathy we’ve seen in everything from Legion to The Guest; Vand is also a picture of surprising tenacity. White, known for playing fuckups on shows like Shameless, is comfortable in that mode here, switching between anger and pathos with his typical skill. Brie’s asked to do the least, save for some brilliantly coiled moments of dismayed revelation, but they still essentially work.

Franco’s enough of an actor’s actor to draw out effective performances from his sparse cast.

When it’s time to finally ratchet up the tension and get down to bloody business, though, The Rental starts to stumble a bit. Suffice to say, the simmering anxieties between our four leads give way to a modestly thrilling but bog-standard horror movie ending, externalizing their conflict in a way that the preceding hour doesn’t exactly earn. It’s still filmed with an admirable command of tension and geography by Franco and cinematographer Christian Sprenger, but it can’t help but feel like a damp squib.

And yet, as the closing credits run over a snuff-film montage of people in their homes, completely unaware they’re being watched, The Rental wants to stoke these social fears about our gig-economy reliance on the social contract to get by. It’s not always effective, and the nearly 80-minute runtime is sometimes too sparse for its own good. But Franco’s bona fides as a horror director are established here, so let’s see how his next one fares. (Though reports that he’s launched into an “elevated” quarantine rom-com with wife Brie might just make us work that much faster to cure COVID so we can avoid similar self-indulgent projects.)

The Rental checks in on digital and VOD and select drive-ins July 24th.

The Rental Trailer:

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