Review: Dave Franco's Horror Film 'The Rental' Overstays Its Welcome
by Adam Frazier
July 24, 2020
Filmmaker Joe Swanberg is best known for his work in the mumblecore subgenre, writing and directing micro-budget films with an emphasis on naturalistic acting and improvised dialogue. His movies, like 2013's Drinking Buddies and 2014's Happy Christmas, are indie comedy-dramas concerned with the interpersonal relationships and the romantic entanglements of people in their twenties and early thirties. Occasionally, however, Swanberg works in the horror genre, as an actor (The Sacrament, You're Next, A Horrible Way to Die) and director (the V/H/S segment "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," which he also starred in). Now, he's collaborating with Dave Franco on the actor's directorial debut, a film titled The Rental, which combines Swanberg's mumblecore and horror sensibilities with mixed results.
To celebrate the success of their tech start-up, business partners Charlie (Dan Stevens from The Guest and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) and Mina (Sheila Vand from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night) go on a much-needed weekend getaway together with their significant others – Charlie's wife, Michelle (Alison Brie from Netflix's G.L.O.W and NBC's "Community") as well as Mina's boyfriend (and Charlie's brother), Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Staying at a beautiful rental home on the Oregon coast, the foursome arrives with plans to cut loose, booze it up, and [checks notes] do a shitload of ecstasy.
After Josh and Michelle turn in early to prepare for a morning hike, Charlie and Mina try out the jacuzzi, and yes, it goes precisely where you think it's going (to Fucktown™). If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because it's pretty much beat-for-beat Swanberg's Drinking Buddies. In that movie, two co-workers (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) go on a weekend getaway to a remote cabin with their significant others (played by Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, respectively). The two co-workers get fucked up and go skinny dipping, leaving their partners to hook up during a hike in the woods. Then, after he's finished ripping himself off, Swanberg and co-writer Dave Franco take a hard right into Tropesville with some lazy and underwhelming attempts at "elevated horror." You see, there's a good chance – OK, a great chance – that someone is spying on the couples and recording their infidelities on hidden cameras.
Upon discovering a camera in a showerhead, Mina suspects that creepy caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss from 2018's Halloween and HBO's The Righteous Gemstones) may be involved. After all, her boyfriend Josh – an idiot – violated the no-pets rule by bringing his French bulldog Reggie (who is, of course, totally innocent in all this) so Taylor has plenty to be pissed about. When petty arguments and messy romantic entanglements reach their zenith and the gang confronts Taylor, a mysterious intruder (donning one of those ultra-realistic masks from Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive) arrives to ensure the foursome don't check out of the property alive. A game of cat & mouse ensues as the film awkwardly tries to juggle home invasion and slasher tropes.
I've written a lot about Swanberg in this review of Franco's directorial debut, and that's because, in terms of authorial voice, Franco doesn't have one yet. If he does, it must be buried deep under Swanberg's schtick, which overpowers everything. Visually, however, cinematographer Christian Sprenger and production designer Meredith Lippincott give the movie a sleek A24 aesthetic, accentuated by the nerve-jangling work of sound designer/editor Zach Seivers and composers Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans. Together, they create a sufficient amount of atmospheric dread for a homebound paranoia thriller such as this. The cast, too, is strong. Dan Stevens is charming as always, with a tinge of wickedness just under the surface, while Sheila Vand portrays her character's strength and vulnerability effortlessly. Alison Brie – who is married to Dave Franco – is having a blast here. She's funny, effervescent, and the only likable person in the whole movie. If only The Rental was about Alison Brie divorcing her unfaithful husband and "getting back to nature" by going on hikes and doing ecstasy at a cottage on the coast. If only.
Any first-time filmmaker would kill to have access to the same talent and resources available to Franco here. Unfortunately, most of it is squandered on a middling movie that wants to be taken seriously. Remember, this isn't just a horror movie. It's sophisticated – for intellectuals! It's about something. Except, it isn't. It starts as a character-driven thriller about disintegrating relationships, but once the filmmakers start clumsily wielding horror elements to heighten those situations, the flimsy plot falls in on itself. Swanberg and Franco would tell you that the movie is about surveillance and how the growing gig economy and the concept of home-sharing has created a world where people sacrifice personal safety for convenience and yes, The Rental may briefly touch on these themes, but it doesn't have anything to say about them. They're just lofty concepts used to prop up a by-the-numbers home invasion movie. It's Drinking Buddies meets Patrick Brice's wonderfully bizarre 2014 film Creep, without any of the humor or heart of the former and none of the anxiety and unease of the latter.
If you've never seen a horror movie before in your life, then you may be surprised and even satisfied with what The Rental offers. If you're a fan of the genre, however, there's nothing new or gnarly to be gleaned from Franco's directorial debut. Had it instead focused on the life-shattering consequences that come from cheating on your wife with your co-worker, who also happens to be your brother's girlfriend, it could have really tapped into something. While doing research for this review, I was reading through the production materials provided by IFC Films and I came across this bit from an interview (via Mulderville) with Franco that really just sums up everything about the intent of this movie and how widely it misses its mark.
Your movie is expressly about homebound paranoia—not being able to trust one's surroundings. Do you hope that viewers see The Rental as an unwitting metaphor for what we’re all going through right now?
[…] I know this is a grandiose statement, but we figured if we executed the story well, then it could do for home-sharing what Jaws did for the water. In the very least, I think it will make everyone look back on every rental home they've stayed in and wonder if they were being watched.
You did not make the next Jaws, Mr. Franco, but you did, however, succeed in making the "elevated horror" equivalent of a La Quinta Inns & Suites, because I'll never revisit it.
Adam's Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Follow Adam on Twitter - @AdamFrazier