The Rental : Review
The best horror films define themselves with a slyly-advancing doom which eventually overtakes its victims and leaves them permanently damaged with no hope of ever getting back to anything remotely considered “normal.” That’s not to say scary movies with a hockey-masked villain and the triumph of the Final Girl aren’t fun to watch. But life itself is mostly a vague, slowly-encroaching disaster in the making, all of its inhabitants unable to stop the inevitable demise of their loved ones or themselves.
This is largely how to take actor Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental. It’s a tightly-focused and quick-sprinted meditation on the ultimately powerless control we try to exert on life as it spirals into chaos. No matter if our actions are good or evil, if our intentions are meant for the best or merely to save our own skins, there’s no catching the hammer as it comes down to pound us into oblivion.
That the story takes place in a rental property only cements Franco and co-writer Joe Swanberg’s metaphor; we’re all only here for a little while. When the time comes, how do we go out? With the knowledge that we did what we could to make someone’s life better, or that we served only ourselves and our petulant whims? Did we fight like hell or did we simply go with the flow and choose the easy options to try and get away with our mistakes?
Yes, it’s an entirely fatalistic and despairing way to view our own existences. But the foursome at the center of The Rental don’t know any better, living blithely and almost hedonistically by their wants. Franco doesn’t give us any comfort or rest out of each successive scene; instead, the unease starts from the film’s opening and doesn’t stop until the final cut to black. He shows a practiced hand at drama, able to milk every ounce of awkwardness out of each sequence and smacking us in the face with bare looks at each choice made and how easily morals can be tossed aside for convenience.
The discomfort starts as business partners Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) ooh and ahh over a gorgeous AirBnB-style property overlooking the cliffs of Oregon, a potential celebration spot for finally obtaining seed money for their startup. Their extremely intimate proximity to each other causes us to be thrown completely off when Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) shows up and kisses her tenderly – y’know, being her boyfriend and all. The three of them – along with Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Josh’s dog Reggie – head up to the sprawling house, only to be met and taken aback by caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss), who turns out to be a racist prick.
There’s a wantonness which comes along with Charlie’s self-endowed privilege and entitlement. He’s fairly established as the one in charge, taking everything he wants – alcohol, drugs, and eventually Mina herself (although body language implies he’s not entirely to blame). Even Josh tells Michelle an unflattering story about how Charlie might not have been entirely faithful to past girlfriends. But when Mina finds a hidden camera and a shadowy figure is seen watching them on a portable screen from the woods, things go from bad to calamitous, culminating in the discovery of a dead body in the house.
This brings each person’s morals into a harsh light, and it’s truly a struggle to find any common ground between the lot of them. The archetypes each person represents all involve what the drummer from a Richmond, VA band called Mudcat Jones called “sin grease” – a figurative shine to one’s skin based upon the amount of dirty deeds they have committed. Everyone’s got it on them: Michelle’s just about as good as it gets, excepting the large amount of MDMA in her system, of course; we’re told of Josh’s previous stint in jail, and Mina’s confrontational self-righteousness nearly gets in the way of their vacation proceeding at all, not to mention her tryst with Charlie.
It’s Charlie who turns unrecognizable, causing a lot of the group’s problems due to vain self-interest with the goal of having everything be smooth and perfect. From the way he treats the rising situation between Mina and Taylor to his “no one will know” ethic in dealing with the body, we see he’s only in it for some kind of power or control. As later unfolding events will prove, he is decidedly not in any kind of control, and he can’t stop what’s coming for all of them.
The Rental finds Dave Franco confident and assured, unrolling his story with a natural urgency and directness which eschews any kind of frippery. He gets right into interpersonal dynamics without trying to make things stylized or witty, plying us with near-unbearable tension which lasts throughout the ending credits. Most interestingly, he avoids cynicism by not having everyone on the same page; there are shades of better angels at work here, but the underlying current of dread makes quick work of any hope we might have for their outcomes. As directorial debuts go, Franco’s opening salvo is a corker of a thriller boasting a bleak statement on humanity as a whole, sending us on our way with a closing glimpse of horrors to come.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language throughout, drug use, and some sexuality.
More scenes play out over credits.
Running time: 88 minutes.
Released by IFC Films.
Available 7/24 on VOD.