Alison Brie as Michelle
Dan Stevens as Charlie
Sheila Vand as Mina
Jeremy Allen White as Josh
Toby Huss as Taylor
Co-Written & Directed by Dave Franco; Co-Written by Joe Swanberg
The Rental Review:
The horror genre is a fantastic world for debuting writer/directors to not only put their stamp on the industry and shape how audiences perceive them by the camera, but also for pulling the rug out from audiences accustomed to their work in another genre, and though Dave Franco may not reach the same cultural or intellectual heights as Jordan Peele did in Get Out, his horror-thriller The Rental proves that with a little work he could very well reach those same heights in filmmaking.
Two couples on an oceanside getaway grow suspicious that the host of their seemingly perfect rental house may be spying on them. Before long, what should have been a celebratory weekend trip turns into something far more sinister, as well-kept secrets are exposed and the four old friends come to see each other in a whole new light.
Though its plot is pretty atypical for the genre, it becomes clear quickly into its start that Franco and co-writer Joe Swanberg, well-known for his work in the horror genre with You’re Next and V/H/S, are aware of the tropes that come with the story and are willing to sprinkle them throughout while still building a compelling and authentic human drama at its center. Though we may not necessarily have a connection to these characters aside from the fact they’re at the center of the story, the writing duo brilliantly find a way to get us to care about them and make them a little likable even when they’re annoying each other as much as they are the audience.
The bickering between brothers Josh and Charlie and the awkward solo conversations between Mina and Michelle all feel thoroughly real and enjoyable to watch, especially when the group dive into the hallucinogenics and begins learning more about each other and themselves, but it’s when secrets begin piling up and the tension builds that the movie begins to finds its real rhythm. As the group tries to find ways to hide things from each other, the real terror kicks in as they realize they’re being watched and the twists and turns become really nasty and exciting. The transition from human drama to outright thriller proves to be incredibly smooth and acts less like a change and more like a melding of the two, still keeping the tension between the characters as a key element while simultaneously putting them in the path of a mysterious enemy.
It’s also this life-threatening change that proves to be one of the most exciting and unique elements of the film as it soon becomes apparent that despite a roster full of A-list talent, no one is actually safe from the menace of the unidentified madman targeting them. Every time a scene is set up in which audiences would generally see a protagonist character return later in the film after seemingly being dead, Franco instead chooses to keep that rug he pulled out from under audiences under his arm and leave them shocked by the demise they’ve just witnessed, almost transferring the paranoia the characters were feeling in the first act onto the audiences and raising the stakes for everyone.
Not to mention does this film just look absolutely beautiful, thanks to a combination of Franco’s clearly keen eye for style and depth and the work of his incredible cinematographer/director of photography Christian Sprenger, the Emmy winner behind some of Atlanta‘s best episodes including “Teddy Perkins.” It’s clear from the opening shots the duo had known how they wanted the film to look visually, from the accentuated darkness of the surrounding forest to the claustrophobic feeling of the sprawling ocean cliffside rental home, it’s a film that’s magnificent to look at even when some of the more horrifying actions are on screen.
The writing and the characters are also further brought to life thanks to the phenomenal performances from its talented ensemble cast, namely those of Dan Stevens and Sheila Vand. It’s obvious from the start these two are the real main characters of the pic and the performers don’t let that opportunity go to waste as every moment they’re on screen, together or individually, they are captivating to watch. This is not to say that Alison Brie and Jeremy Allen White are forgettable, as the two definitely still deliver strong performances, but there’s something about the way Stevens and especially Vand command the viewer’s attention onscreen that sees the outshine an otherwise stellar cast.
The Rental may hit the occasional familiar note, but thanks to Franco’s assured direction in his debut behind the camera, a tense psychological character study, a brilliant cast, a number of rug pulls and plenty of questions left open to the audience, it proves to be one of the most exhilarating debuts to date in the horror-thriller genre and has me excited to see him helm more projects.