For Dave Franco’s directorial debut, he made the wise choice to make it horror. It’s a genre that offers a lot of flexibility in the details, as long as the film works. Co-written by Franco and Joe Swanberg (V/H/S, Drinking Buddies), The Rental takes some creative chances that mark Franco as a curious new talent to watch for.
The Rental follows Charlie (Dan Stevens, The Guest, Apostle) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie, Community, Glow), who pair up with Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Shameless), and Josh’s girlfriend/Charlie’s business partner, Mina (Sheila Vand, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) to rent a seemingly perfect house for a weekend getaway. But what begins as a festive weekend for the four close friends turns into something far more sinister as secrets they’ve kept from each other are exposed and paranoia grows that they may not be alone.
Visually, The Rental has that muted it’s-fall-at-the-beach aesthetic that hovers a sense of dread over the proceedings. This isn’t a bright, happy, sunny season of fun and adventure, it’s a dreary sense of cold that settles in, even in a warmly lit room. It sets a moody tone that carries throughout the film.
Franco — no stranger to working in front of the camera — pushes the actors by limiting the shot reverse shot framing, opting instead to hold the camera on one character while the dialogue happens around them. The camera doesn’t jump around during group conversations, it often works its way through the room, person by person, while the actors take their time to react to what’s being said. It creates a sense of intimacy that allows you to click in to the characters a bit more, but it also draws attention to the sometimes clunky script.
Though the script isn’t all that complex, it’s Alison Brie as Michelle who really sells it. Franco — who is married to Brie — knows the talent he’s working with here. Brie’s sincerity and deeply likable nature (and her role as the voice of reason) makes Michelle the only character you really care about. When she ducks out of the first night of partying and is left to roll on her own the next day, there’s something so subtle about her performance that beautifully communicates her hurt and frustration while still keeping a smiling face.
As far as “house rental” horror goes, The Rental certainly brings up some worst case scenarios. Hidden cameras and a body count combine to create what must be a really bad trip for poor Michelle. While the dialogue makes a very strong attempt to seem organic, the weight of the situation is real enough that you can connect to the reactions of each character. The script sounds awkward, but you can still get why it works.
Though the plot meanders in one direction for quite some time, things really take off when it shifts gears. I’m trying really hard to avoid spoilers here, but The Rental essentially sets itself up as one thing before flipping to another. It’s a surprise slasher that is never fully explained, which is where the horror genre can be very forgiving; in the genre, things often don’t require explanation in order for them to work.
That said, there are other horror films that have done a similar formula with better execution, but there’s something about the set up that makes The Rental work. We’re dedicated to one thing for so long that the end result feels almost inconsequential, but I actually don’t mind it. It’s a snapshot. It does what few films dare to do — it toys with commitment and dangles questions that aren’t answered. Now, this could certainly be considered a bad thing — and perhaps it is — but in the horror genre, it’s forgivable. We’re allowed to be left with questions. We’re allowed to not get answers.
When the shift comes, Franco leans in to the horror elements to make the climax really take off. It can be surprisingly brutal. It’s hard to say if Franco is a diehard fan of the genre, or if he just wanted to try something different for his directorial debut. He’s checked in to the vast house of horror, but it may just be a short stay. Either way, he’s found his footing as a director with a horror film that looks great and stands strong above many other genre offerings.
The Rental is available in select drive-ins, theatres, and On Demand on July 24th. You can check out the trailer and poster below.