Dave Franco's directorial debut is an impressively lean thriller that makes time to give depth and authenticity to its characters
Of all the feelings you expect to have toward slasher movie victims, envy is rarely one of them, yet we’ve reached a point in the pandemic where that's exactly the case with The Rental. Yes, the foursome at the heart of this lean directorial debut from writer-director Dave Franco are awful, unhappy people, sniping at each other before being brutally dispatched by a masked maniac, but they’re also on holiday at a gorgeous seaside home, an enticing freedom that has a powerful resonance at a time of lockdown.
Though it takes a while before the slashing starts in earnest, The Rental is tense and uncomfortable from the start. High-flyers Mina (Sheila Vand) and Charlie (Dan Stevens) have just received a big chunk of seed money for their unspecified start-up, so they decide to rent a coastal house for a weekend getaway with their respective partners.
It’s obvious that there’s something deeper to Mina and Charlie’s relationship than just work. The insecurity this causes Mina’s boyfriend Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and Charlie’s girlfriend Michelle (Alison Brie) infects the atmosphere as soon as they arrive at the house, a queasy unease only worsened by the terse and racist introduction Mina receives from the house’s caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss).
Franco, co-writing with mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg, draws these characters with impressive efficiency, and they’re all just unlikable enough to get a kick out of seeing them meet their ends, but not so much that you’re actively rooting for the killer. It’s an important balance to strike, and you end up feeling like this group may have ended up killing one another even if the hammer-wielding murderers hadn't shown up.
Stevens is reliably great as the overconfident Charlie, a natural leader when things go awry but an often unpleasant guy towards Michelle and Josh, who, to make things that much more uncomfortable, is Charlie’s younger brother. This fraternal conflict, between an artistic womaniser of an older brother and the more down-to-earth younger one, certainly has echoes of the differences between the Francos, lending The Rental a powerful personal touch.
As the group’s camaraderie swiftly breaks down, and Charlie and Mina inevitably end up cheating with one another on an ecstasy-fuelled evening, Franco and Swanberg find nicely unpredictable ways to move the story along, even if things do take a turn for the conventional once the murdering kicks off. These scenes are still tense and thrilling, though not all that frightening for an ostensible horror movie, but The Rental’s strength lies more in its characters than its kills.
Though he does make some winks and nods towards the classics of the genre, Franco’s direction is mostly understated, subtly building menace and avoiding gratuitousness in the sex and violence. That isn’t to say The Rental goes easy on you, though, and its dark and pessimistic ending lingers long after the credits have rolled. While his older brother James has often overstretched himself as a director, taking on Faulkner adaptations that are far beyond his talents, Franco here proves a steady hand behind the camera with a sleek and contained thriller that leaves a pit of dread in your stomach, even in its quieter moments.
The Rental is now available on Amazon Prime Video.Where to watch