By Elias Savada.
It’s another hung-out-to-dry whodunit…in which you never really learn whodunit.”
Will The Rental do more damage to the home sharing business than the Covid-19 virus already has? Probably not, but this cautionary tale – an adequate variant of the Cabin in the Woods horror sub-genre, might cause vacation-starved viewers to reconsider their weekend plans at an extremely secluded house with a lovely ocean view. Oh, and do watch out for that jagged cliff, the eerie fog, and a mysterious, masked stranger.
Dave Franco, following in the footsteps of his older brother and fellow actor, James, has earned his director stripes. His first foray behind the camera is an acceptable thriller, but the film’s twist of a third act (he co-wrote the screenplay with mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg, from a story they penned with Mike Demski) is a disaster. Franco says the idea was born from his own insecurities with Airbnb rentals, but the way he tells it, the closure you get might not be the resolution you want. It’s definitely not one you expect.
Two couples, related by work and family, are celebrating with a last-minute weekend getaway to a cozy house overlooking the Pacific. Self-involved Charlie (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens), who apparently doesn’t mind a cover-up when required, has just secured some funding for his Portland, Oregon, tech start-up. He wants to party with his assistant, Mina (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night‘s Sheila Vand), his wife Michelle (G.L.O.W.‘s Alison Brie, also the wife of Dave Franco), and Josh (Jeremy Allen White, the smart one in Shameless), Mina’s not-as-smart-as-she-is ex-con and quick-to-pounce boyfriend. He’s also Charlie’s brother, and a Lyft driver. And no, the film does not explore the horrors of ridesharing – just timesharing. Obviously a close-knit foursome. Friends all, but soon enough the business associates find their professional relationship has some dangerous, regrettable benefits. What harm can an intimate weekend of recreational drugs and a relaxing hot tub cause?
For the most part, the first hour sufficiently builds up the characters’ hang ups and hang downs. The strong-willed Mina, upset that she was denied the house rental by its caretaker (a squirrely Toby Huss) because of her Middle Eastern ethnicity, calls him out for allowing the not-so-righteous (but plenty American) Charlie to book it in his name. When Mina brings this cultural pimple to its bursting point, Josh is the one to pop it with a fit that breaks the quartet’s social dynamic.
There are hints that something else is afoot here. That malevolence is just around the bend: a second password-protected internet network, a locked door secured by an alarm pad, some soot falling from an overhead vent, Josh’s dog Reggie frightened by something outside, and eventually watching the film through the angles from all the secret spyware placed throughout the property. The film’s has a telling shower scene that brings back (much fonder) memories of how Hitchcock used it to such great extent in Psycho, a sequence so lovingly dissected in Karyn Kiusama’s 78/52.
But, damn, The Rental‘s last half-hour takes you from relationship drama to stalker-thriller, and none of the characters seem capable of deciphering the clues being dropped as breadcrumbs along the script’s fog-enshrouded roadway. The ending is an utter failure, unless it intentionally is trying to set up a sequel based on a perpetrator who arrives late to the action, because Franco and Swanberg ran out of any reasonably good way to finish this tonally-butchered, patchwork thriller off. It’s another hung-out-to-dry whodunit…in which you never really learn whodunit. Only Reggie knows for sure.
The Rental premiered on June 18th at the Vineland Drive-In in City of Industry, California. You can now watch it on VOD from the comfort of your non-secluded home nowhere near the ocean or a cliff. As for any killers on the loose, please protect yourselves as best you can.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).