2020 | R | starring Sheila Vand, Dan Stevens, Allison Brie, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss | directed by Dave Franco | 1 hr 28 mins |
In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, theaters shut down and every tentpole film was pushed out a year. In that atmosphere Dave Franco’s debut The Rental became as big a hit as possible, debuting at the top of the box office for weeks in a time when literally no other movie was out and small theater chains were keeping the lights on with showings of Jurassic Park and The Goonies. So what the heck is this movie? A home invasion thriller. Kind of, with Franco and indie writer Joe Swanberg running circles around the premise trying to find a new way to make Rental pop out from the genre pack. The end result is a movie that tries to be a lot and ends up being very little. More of an authentic genre effort than Duplass brother anti-horror horror films like Baghead and Creep, but not by a lot. Like those films the movie is so allergic to horror tropes that time-tested genre tactics that make for a satisfying film get swept up in the process.
Brothers and their girlfriends spend a weekend at a cliffside vacation property and things go sideways in a variety of ways. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and girlfriend Michelle (Allison Brie) along with Charlie’s business partner Mina (Sheila Vand, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and Charlie’s screw-up brother and Mina’s boyfriend, Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Shameless). Right off the bat, Mina is convinced renter Taylor (Toby Huss) denied her application for the rental but accepted Charlie’s is because of her middle eastern name and Taylor does nothing to quell that among another of awkward comments and behaviors. Things get worse when they find a camera in the shower and the increasing presence of someone watching them.
While the final product here is a sanctimonious mix of Vacancy, The Strangers and Baghead, the film isn’t a mess. Every step it takes is deliberate and calculated – or feels so – by Franco. It moves from group dynamic drama to paranoid thriller to slasher movie while making deliberate cuts around actually showing the violence or the jumps. Franco is going for atmospheric horror here, but the story is pulled in so many directions that he can never settle downshift into one mode and let that atmosphere really settle in. He would rather construct a faceless villain into a tired, academic film school comment on voyeurism (that still has nothing to say), than construct a villain that is frightening or heroes to root for. He might be anywhere…. Wooo.
The Rental is inoffensive, just deadly dull, with a talented cast wandering around as equally aimlessly as the story. By the time we get to the cliche in the story where all of our heroes are debating to “call the cops or hide the body”, pretty much everyone comes off as either spineless and useless or commanding and terrible. Grabs at several things and ends up doing none of them particularly well. The Rental is the worst kind of horror movie, one that hates being a horror movie.