Book ‘The Rental’, a New Thriller from director Dave Franco

by Warren Cantrell on July 23, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

If a person ever asked themself what it might have looked like if Alfred Hitchcock screwed around in the slasher genre, The Rental might be worth their time. A shotgun marriage of two genres, rookie director Dave Franco has made a movie that doesn’t quite nail either bullseye, but hits enough of each target to keep up the illusion of good marksmanship. Indeed, it’s not a perfect film, but it is a damn effective one, and it has the courage to pursue its narrative’s logical ends in a way that screams “this one didn’t get any studio notes” both to its credit and detriment.

The set-up is a simple one: two couples venture out of the city together to a secluded Airbnb for the weekend. The classic “cabin-in-the-woods” horror-suspense setting updated for the 21st century, The Rental plays with several expected tropes to increase tension right off the bat, including potential love triangles, a shady maybe-racist house caretaker, and a fog-shrouded cliff-face in the backyard. Franco, who co-wrote the script with Joe Swanberg, isn’t just updating the setting to translate the genre tropes, however, but is using the unique nature of house-sharing to seed class and social-specific markers that further increase the tension.

The characters aren’t just props for the story, either; there’s start-up CEO Charlie (Dan Stevens) who is married to the trusting and goofy Michelle (Alison Brie), herself only casually friendly with Charlie’s hothead brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and Josh’s girlfriend/Charlie’s business partner, Mina (Sheila Vand). Charlie and Mina’s company is on the verge of a huge seed funding breakthrough, and are using the weekend getaway as a chance to celebrate with their partners (whose romantic relationships seem to sometimes take a backseat to the professional one Charlie and Mina enjoy). After a night of ecstasy-fueled partying and excess, Mina finds a surveillance camera in the shower, one that threatens everyone’s relationships considering the footage it might have captured a few hours previous (once Josh and Michelle went to bed).

Stuck in an isolated location with only half the group aware of what’s really going on, and with a nefarious camera-happy voyeur in the ether, The Rental takes a little too long to get to its conflict, yet once established, it is indeed effective. Bad luck, poor timing, and a few slips of the tongue set everyone on edge, and that’s before the masked, silent killer appears and starts stalking the group. As far as escalations go, this one is a doozy, and initially feels like an extra log on a fire that’s already burning quite well, yet Franco and Swanberg have a plan with all of this, and it tracks well right up to the last frame of the picture.

Even so, it’s a bit choppy at times. The script does a fine job establishing the “who” for all of its players, yet never connects the dots on the “why” of their relationships and personalities. Some stilted dialogue early on during the ride to the Airbnb attempts to create a familiar dynamic for the group, but it never gets the audience to a place where it feels like it knows these characters beyond their surface conflicts. Sure, it is revealed that Josh has a criminal history and worries like Mina is way out of his league, but this conflict is all the audience has to connect with the character.

As a result, when the big bad of the movie starts stalking around and putting these people in danger, it’s sometimes hard to care. Luckily for the film, Franco is a natural behind the camera, and knows how to craft the more intense scenes in the movie’s second half to maximize their effectiveness. The action is well-staged and shot, and is married brilliantly to the pulsing, relentless score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, which throbs like a pained, frantic heartbeat during some of the most intense moments.

There are several great shots in the film, yet Franco knows when to hold and when to cut away, never relishing in his visuals for longer than is needed (tempting as this must have been). The ending, though somewhat abrupt and not especially crowd-pleasing, also knows when to strike for max efficiency, and hangs around just long enough to give the audience what it needs to tie up the story’s various loose ends. To the film’s credit, there are a lot of balls in the air as this one heads into its third act, yet The Rental manages to solve pretty much all the questions it puts forward throughout its tidy 88-minute runtime.

So, yeah, this one is kind of like a cobbled-together junkyard car: a classic suspense thriller chassis, a-la Rear Window, welded to a Michael Myers frame, The Rental might not be street-legal, but it drives. The somewhat slow start and purpose-only characters are boosted by a clever concept that is only fully revealed in the final moments, yet pieces together nicely. Vand and Brie stand out amongst the cast, yet it is Franco who really shines here, proving that his skills behind the camera more than match what he is able to do in front of it.  

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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