Restrained and patient, The Rental has glimmers of potential without ever becoming the memorable, intelligent horror it seems to want to be.
Dave Franco’s feature directorial debut, The Rental, is certainly a product of its time. It holds a distinct relevance in the 21st century with its examination of the dangers of technology and, perhaps more interestingly, the dangers of online holiday rentals. However, instead of screaming with said relevance, it merely passes by with a soft whimper. There is potential in The Rental, but a large portion of it remains frustratingly untapped.
Like so many films of the last year, The Rental was released largely on video-on-demand in July 2020. Married couple Charlie (Dan Stevens, of Beauty and the Beast and Netflix horror Apostle) and Michelle (Alison Brie, of Happiest Season) decide to take an impromptu weekend getaway, inviting another couple along with them, comprised of Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White, of Shameless), and Charlie’s business partner, Mina (Sheila Vand, known for her role in the Oscar-winning film Argo). Individually, the cast are on different levels. Stevens never quite shows the charisma or magnetism required for a role that is debatably the central character, and White, playing the hot-head brother, too often leans into melodrama. Brie and in particular Vand are the standouts of the ensemble, the former playing the purest and nicest but also arguably the strongest of the characters, and the latter really taking flight with realistic intensity when things start to go very wrong (and things do go rather wrong).
As an ensemble though, the cast work well; the romantic relationships are believable and the layer of sexual tension between Charlie and Mina is an interesting addition, especially when touched upon in a paranoid conversation Michelle and Josh have, both bouncing their deepest fears of a possible affair against each other. The four actors feed off one another in a dynamic way and the drama that unfolds within the group is carefully portrayed by all of them. As a character study into a group of people with dysfunctional and self-destructive tendencies, The Rental is accomplished, but the issues start to arise when the screenplay adds more genres and themes into the mix.
It is here that The Rental starts to misfire, both down to Franco’s direction and the screenplay (co-written by Franco and Joe Swanberg). The former is by no means bad; Franco shows an impressively controlled side to his direction and ensures the film moves along at a pace that is patient but never too slow. He also doesn’t sensationalise the violence that comes near the end of the film, instead opting to keep the tone restrained which in turn enforces the horror. To combine genres and themes in a successful way is no mean feat; Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning Parasite (2019) is perhaps the best example from the 21st century to achieve this so successfully. Franco, of course, can’t be expected to hit the same level as directors of that ilk (not yet, at least), but still fails to coherently balance all of the notions at play. Whilst on their own the horror aspects are impressively directed and filmed, they still feel out of place when put into context with the first hour and themes of racism early in the film are touched upon too lightly and never revisited again. Franco is not helped by the screenplay which not only lacks the structure to ensure The Rental remains cohesive, but also feels stilted at times, especially in the everyday, naturalistic-style conversations the characters have.
Without going into spoiler territory, the concept of The Rental is perhaps its strongest part. It speaks to the dangers of technology in modern day society and the potential hazards of anonymous, faceless people behind a screen. There is a foreboding dread in The Rental. This is achieved in part by Christian Sprenger’s cinematography, which is often beautiful but always hinting at something being not quite right. There is a danger lurking beneath the surface, much like the potential of an intelligent horror lurking somewhere within The Rental, on occasion emerging impressively but for the most part submerging again and staying hidden.
Since his breakthrough in 21 Jump Street (2012), Dave Franco’s acting career has moved along at a steady if unremarkable pace. It is interesting, then, that he has already joined an ever-growing list of actors who turn to directing on the side, but even after watching his directorial debut, it remains to be seen if this shift will be a successful one or not.
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