The thing that stands out most about The Rental is its patience. It’s a slow-burn thriller that methodically tightens its narrative screws all the way to the very end. Even its cathartic moments are laced with more tension, never offering viewers a release. With only a handful of characters and a single location, The Rental is an economical film that turns its potential limitations into strengths. It makes for a nerve-jangling 90 minutes and marks an impressive directorial debut for Dave Franco.
RELEASE DATE: July 24, 2020
DIRECTOR: Dave Franco
A weekend getaway for four friends turns into a nightmare as old secrets come to light.
The premise of The Rental is about as bare-bones as it gets: Two couples book an Airbnb for a weekend getaway. Tucked away in semi-seclusion in the Pacific Northwest, the house is the kind of place the film’s young professionals aspire to own one day. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie) are the kind of couple (re: white, attractive) that exudes privilege. They haven’t totally cashed in yet, but it’s not far off. But they’re aware.
Charlie successfully booked the home an hour after Mina Mohammadi (Sheila Vand) was told the place was unavailable, and you can guess why. Mina confronts the homeowner, Taylor (Toby Huss), about racism early on and it injects a sense of unease that grows over the rest of the film.
Rounding out the quartet is Josh (Jeremy Allen White), Charlie’s brother and Mina’s boyfriend. He’s an ex-con who works as a Lyft driver. While the script, credited to Franco and Joe Swanberg, doesn’t develop the characters beyond one or two notes, the chemistry of the four leads elevates the material. But taken individually, Josh and Mina are the most interesting and, early on, the film splits the group off into pairs, Charlie and Mina spending a night drinking and hot-tubbing, and Josh and Michelle going on a hike.
One thing the script does well is balance the group’s drama with the outside force of Taylor. For any lie told or truth revealed among the group, there’s something else working against them. The interplay between the internal and external forces chipping away at the group continually raises the stakes. Franco’s direction stands out because he’s patient and comfortable letting the characters sit in uncomfortable moments. There aren’t many flashy visual effects, but one thing that stands out is the use of fog and steam. It’s a simple, effective theme. The same thing goes for the score. Where many thrillers tend to lean on music cues to punctuate scenes or heighten the drama, The Rental opts for restraint.
Until the last 30 minutes.
For an hour or so The Rental works great. But as the film rounds the corner into its third act, it starts to get away from the things that had been working. The score, composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, imposes itself more and the action ramps up. At that point, it feels like the script is ticking-off boxes on a checklist in service of an ending that feels perfunctorily glib. Without spoiling anything, The Rental’s setup is more satisfying than its payoff, despite some good moments. I do like that the characters make logical choices as things start to go off the rails for them. It feels like Franco and Swanberg anticipate the reactions of “why would they do this instead of that?” from skeptical viewers and just have the characters do “that.”
The Rental reminded me of Mark and Jay Duplass’ Creep films and Adam Wingaard’s You’re Next (which Swanberg co-starred in). They’re all lo-fi in terms of size and scale, but they all understand genre conventions and bend them to their will. For the most part, they’re clever and entertaining. That’s pretty much where The Rental lands for me. It’s good enough to make you wish it were just a little bit better. But, most surprisingly, I’m now interested in seeing what Dave Franco does next as a director. The Rental is now available on VOD and is worth a... rental.