Terror in a hotel or motel (or motel shower) has been done to death, but bringing horror to the familiar trappings of an Airbnb is simple, brilliant, and surprisingly untapped before now. An ideal breeding ground for paranoid delusions––or horrific realities––it was only a matter of time before filmmakers embraced the innate weirdness at play here. Hands raised if you’d predicted those filmmakers would be Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg.
Franco makes his directorial debut with The Rental, a sturdy, small-scale thriller that makes little lasting impact but certainly succeeds in providing some clever jolts. The actor-turned-directed teamed with the prolific Swanberg on the screenplay, which was a wise move as the film certainly has some of the relationship-driven dark comedy Swanberg has brought to films like Drinking Buddies and Digging for Fire.
Franco brings a clean, ultra-professional style to The Rental, a film in which it never feels like there’s an inexperienced eye behind the camera. Wonderfully shot by cinematographer Christian Sprenger (Atlanta, Brigsby Bear) and featuring a tremendously eerie score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, these elements elevate a relatively simple story. Two couples rent a house for the weekend to celebrate a business success. In the opening scene, the gorgeous property is discovered online. It’s a bit overpriced, but Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) decide to take the plunge.
These initial moments are intriguingly disorienting. Our first glance of Charlie and Mina implies coupledom; their body language seems to confirm it. Then the (seemingly) doltish Josh (Jeremy Allen White) enters the room, exchanges a kiss with Mina, and all bets are off. It becomes apparent that Charlie and Mina are business partners, Charlie and Josh are brothers, and Mina and Josh are dating. (Got that?) This sense of emotional and romantic fluidity is important, both to Franco’s story and the characters’ later actions. It’s also an apt metaphor for the constant flow of humanity in and out of a rental property.
The ever-delightful Alison Brie completes the quartet as Charlie’s girlfriend, Michelle. The couples’ departure is not without hiccups, as Josh decides to bring along his dog, despite the no-dogs-allowed house rule. And their arrival is no easier, as they are greeted by the strange, socially awkward Taylor (Toby Huss). Taylor explains that his brother is the owner, and instantly clashes with Mina. It’s a riveting scene, tense and well-written scene, and sets the tone for what is to follow.
All is well at first, but after a drug-fueled evening, something happens between two of the characters that, eventually, will severely dent the group’s positive vibe. Soon after, Mina spots something in the shower––perhaps a camera. From then on, all four characters are gripped with confusion and paranoia. And after a confrontation with Taylor, life-altering decisions must be made. That’s before the shower footage is suddenly, and very mysteriously, playing upstairs. From this moment on, The Rental becomes a true horror film, right down to a stalker moving quietly and violently inside and outside the house. This final act is a tad predictable but still effective, featuring some sweeping long shots that make nice use of the home’s spacious interior––and the final scene might be the most terrifying of all. The entire closing sequence plays with our expectations and avoids explanation; a smart send-off by Franco and Swanberg.
The casting is also shrewd. Dan Stevens does not have much to do as Charlie, despite some reveals that make the character’s backstory more complex. Brie has more to play with Michelle, and is responsible for the film’s comedic high point. (You’ll know it when you see it.) It is Sheila Vand, though, who is the standout here. The hugely talented star of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night gives a moving, multi-textured performance as Mina. One of the film’s failings, actually, is that interest drops dramatically every time Vand is not on screen. She’s that strong, and helps nudge The Rental above ordinary thriller fare. The film never makes the leap into greatness, but succeeds at providing intensity in its sub-90-minute runtime.
Time will tell whether Dave Franco’s directorial career will be as strange and prolific as his brother’s. One thing is certain, however: after just one impressively-mounted film, he’s already established himself as the filmmaking Franco to keep an eye on.
The Rental arrives digitally and in select theaters on Friday, July 24.