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Dave Franco's The Rental Starts Strong But Fizzles By the End

Mina, Charlie and Josh look over the cliff.
Dan Steven as Charlie, Sheila Vand as Mina, and Jeremy Allen White as Josh in Dave Franco's THE RENTAL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

The potential dangers of staying in a stranger’s home -- a common occurrence thanks to online marketplaces like Airbnb -- is explored in Dave Franco’s atmospheric directorial debut, The Rental. Known mostly for his comedic acting roles (Neighbors, The Disaster Artist), Franco chose to subvert expectations by creating a movie that dances a line between psychological suspense and slasher horror.

Franco’s inspiration for the film came from his own paranoia about booking from places such as Airbnb. Often, a few positive reviews on a crowd-sourced site is all it takes to inspire consumers to trust their safety to strangers during such a divided moment in our culture. While other directors have created movies based on this same concept -- Chad Werner’s A Perfect Host and Richard Zarcoff’s 13 Cameras being recent examples -- no such film has gained widespread acclaim among mainstream moviegoers. There's definitely room to explore the fears spawned by the gig economy through a cinematic lens. And while Franco does a nice job creating a palpable sense of dread and selects a fine cast of actors to bring the story he co-wrote with Joe Swanberg ("Easy"; Drinking Buddies) to life, The Rental suffers from a lackluster, predictable plot and disappointing reveal.

Charlie (Dan Stevens; "Downton Abbey") and Mina (Sheila Vand; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) work together as business partners but, based on their body language and easy rapport, one might assume they had romantic potential, as well, if not for the fact that both are in relationships with other people. Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie; Horse Girl; "Mad Men"), while Mina dates Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White; "Shameless"). After landing a coveted seed fund, Mina and Charlie want to celebrate before the workload picks up. The two couples decide to plan a luxurious getaway at an expansive oceanside home and split the cost. But their getaway turns ominous as the foursome face temptations, insecurities, and fears that their rental host, Taylor (Toby Huss) harbors ill intent. 

Michelle walks through the woods
Alison Brie as Michelle in Dave Franco's THE RENTAL.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

From a cast standpoint, Franco hit the jackpot. Dan Stevens as Charlie plays the overconfident, alpha male who uses his looks and charisma to great advantage. Sheila Vand as Mina is convincing as a brilliant career woman who wonders if she’s being judged for her ethnicity (she’s Iranian American). Josh has a violent past but wants to be better for Mina and perhaps feels inferior to his more successful brother. Meanwhile, Alison Brie as Michelle plays as the type-A woman who likes to find an excuse to kick back and get a little wild when she’s off the grid. All bring their A-game into playing these roles and also exude chemistry as a unit, channeling the comfort level viewers expect to see from old friends. They trade inside jokes and aren’t afraid to be snarky with one another. As the vacation begins and recreational drugs make an appearance, each character’s inhibitions drop in a way that plays true to form.

The first half of the movie, devoted to getting to know the characters and their backstories and settling into the sense of dread hovering over the rental house, is the strongest part. Viewers sense things are about to go very wrong, even as the group enjoys the getaway and the fun of being somewhere new. Franco clearly means to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining in the way he begins the movie with menacing music and a series of shots of the house and its grounds. During the drive to the house, the characters trade minimal dialogue while the camera focuses on the road and the journey to their destination. Many of these carefully constructed frames layer different shots on top of each other. We seem to be following the car, as well as looking out the window or traveling through a dimly lit tunnel, creating a sense of nightmarish doom. The dark lighting plays a role in the dread, as well, casting shadows and clouds over the proceedings, even in daylight. 

Mina huddles near a tree
Sheila Vand as Mina in Dave Franco's THE RENTAL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

In addition to the dark lighting, in different moments the screen turns hazy with a cover of fog or steam. Whether it’s steam from the hot tub jets and shower fog rolling in over the water, the cloud cover creates an air of secrecy, tricking the characters into thinking their actions will stay hidden in the mist, encouraging them to act without the fear of consequences.

As the first half of slow-building tension gives way to the quicker-paced and plot-driven second half, the movie falters and enters story territory that seems predictable and disappointing. The motives of the revealed antagonist are never explained and the movie seems to suffer from an identity crisis. The atmospheric suspense we have been enjoying devolves into something more akin to slasher horror territory, without any of the campy humor often present in such stories.

While The Rental begins well enough, the ending disappoints. Franco should continue to sharpen his skills as a director, though. He has an eye for creating shots that provoke interest and understands how to build tension. Projects like The Rental present great opportunities for an aspiring director, with a limited setting (all shot on location in Bandon, Oregon) and a small, intimate cast. 

Dave Franco on location
Dave Franco on location in Bandon, Oregon, during filming of THE RENTAL
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

One additional contribution deserves a shout-out: Kami Lennox is the costume designer. Her previous work can be found in such movies as Frank & Lola and the TV series "SMILF." Her costume choices, particularly for the female leads, were spot on. Mina wears a denim jumpsuit on arrival at the cabin and a mouth-watering orange bikini during the hot tub scenes, reflecting a person who is both chic and outside-the-box. When Allison returns from the hike the second night, her teal blue tank top and oversized sweater match her uptight, but ready-to-be-loose-in-that-moment, personality. These seemingly inconsequential costume choices add to the character building and give viewers a subconscious view into the interior life of our core foursome. 

Available in select theaters and VOD July 24, 2020. 

Final Score: 3 out of 5.