With all the chaos of day to day life, people undoubtedly want to get away from it all. That is certainly the motivation for the characters in The Rental, the debut feature from actor turned director Dave Franco. After they secure a booking at an idyllic, seaside house for rent, two couples quickly come undone by the weekend’s terrible turn of events.
Charlie (Dan Stevens) and wife Michelle (Alison Brie) split weekend lodging with Charlie’s troublesome brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand). The urbanites arrive late with a dog secretly in tow, butt heads with the potentially bigoted property manager, Taylor (Toby Huss), and finally get high the night before a scheduled hike outdoors. It all seems innocuous enough until things get out of hand between the guests, leading to a disturbing discovery in the bathroom. Paranoia soaks in and they assume Taylor is up to no good. Finally, a gross misunderstanding exponentially escalates.
The characters get into a very bad situation they think they can fix themselves. With so much true and inspired crime on and off the big screen these days, it’s not exactly a novel idea. Franco then adds some equally familiar horror elements in a bid to make his first film seem more original. Admittedly, it helps even things out. The setup isn’t unique; the characters are entirely grating. What seems like a tale of four people succumbing to unspoken grievances with one another, eventually evolves into something abrupt and faintly better.
Regarding the main characters, the director and co-writer Joe Swanberg do not go above and beyond. They embitter their audience by having them be stuck with four sourheads for eighty-something minutes. The strange ending will undoubtedly come as a relief. A lack of development and the refusal to give us any solid reason to like them is an odd choice, though. While not every character has to be agreeable with audiences, taking this route does the story no favors. Brie‘s role, the trusting wife who cares more about getting high in a hot tub than helping with finding a lost dog, is actually the most tolerable of the bunch. On the other hand, she’s also underdeveloped. And bless poor Stevens as he’s handed the part of a loathsome contrarian he somehow makes bearable because of his natural charms. Vand and White pick up the slack when it comes to their own thin writing.
In contrast to the so-so script, the acting is all around admissible. The couples are largely unpleasant, which is a testament to the actors’ performances. They convince viewers to not like them quite well. When the horror elements become obvious, none of the core four overextend themselves or change their tones. There is a sizable amount of restraint here that effectually adds a favorable touch of realism, all things considered.
It takes a while for The Rental to become the horror movie it’s marketed as. In fact, we wait almost an hour before the biggest and most unavoidable conflict between the group takes front and center. Then, the story then all but abandons itself. Although some might argue this pivot happens too late into the film, it doesn’t come off as mistimed or unwelcoming, either. It occurs so matter of factly that there’s no misinterpretation to be had. The absence of a concrete explanation is also not a hindrance; you can easily draw your own conclusion without being too off base. Whatever its genesis, having the movie forsake its shoddy character work so that it can jump into something more stimulating — that is the best kind of delayed gratification.
Franco is clearly no stranger to filmmaking. His first foray into directing is indicative of an artful eye, and his transition to behind the camera could have been bumpier. The horror aspects of his first project are at least serviceable, if not weirdly typical. Had it not been for the cast, estimable cinematography, and an adequate, back-end dollop of suspense, The Rental would just be passable. At face value, the writing leaves room for improvement, and the shortage of character studies is apparent in an otherwise competently shot movie. Every director has to start somewhere, of course, and there have been admittedly worse ways to begin this kind of second career.