You may think twice about booking that weekend at someone’s Airbnb after watching “The Rental,” the thriller that’s Dave Franco’s directorial debut.
The film, which is co-written by Franco and Joe Swanberg, follows two couples: Michelle (Alison Brie) and Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Shelia Vand). They find a nice-looking cabin online and decide to rent it for a weekend getaway, but when they arrive, they are immediately turned off by the owner, Taylor (Toby Huss), who comes off as invasive and racist after Mina brings up her Middle Eastern heritage. While the opening of the film establishes that Charlie and Mina, who work together, are having an affair, the entire trip brings forth secrets within the group, as they are watched by a mysterious presence all the while.
Franco and Swanberg tackle a few different genres with their script, which morphs from a relationship genre to a thriller to straight horror by the third act. And for the most part, they do so successfully. As the tension mounts between the couples, the thriller aspect of the film becomes more intense, so that the violent turns that the climax takes feel like a natural progression. And that final act is really well done; it’s scary and suspenseful, with Franco using the spacious yet remote cabin to his advantage as the characters poke around in every nook and cranny, and depicting a few of the sequences as surveillance footage. The foggy woods and the cliffs by the sea surrounding the house further contribute to the creepy atmosphere, as does the pulsing score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
“The Rental” is a very lean movie, however, which is both an asset and a detriment. The film runs at just under 90 minutes, and on first viewing, it’s easy to come out of it initially feeling a little confused and unsatisfied. The story doesn’t really have any resolution. But that’s also what’s impressive about it. Franco feeds us just enough information to get by. We know that Josh served a stint in jail. We know that Charlie and Mina spend a lot of time together and are attracted to each other. We know that Michelle is a little uncomfortable with their relationship. But that’s about it. Everything else we can interpret about these characters is given to us by the actors, who make their characters just relatable enough (I hesitate to use the word “likeable,” because I don’t think they’re quite there) for the viewer to be interested—if not completely invested in—what happens to them. Brie doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as she deserves as Michelle, who could be written off as a type A personality at first, but also has a desire to let loose and have fun. It’s fun to see Stevens continue to play against type as a seemingly good guy who maybe isn’t all that good. White does a nice job as the member of the group who’s most likely to lose his temper, but who we also feel surprisingly sympathetic towards. Vand gets to demonstrate equal parts toughness and vulnerability in her performance; her character is the only one who is initially very unwary of their host.
Furthermore, the final shots of the film provide a sort of clarity without giving any specific information. The villain is the villain is the villain, and there’s something simultaneously frustrating and refreshing about ending the film on that note. According to Franco, “The Rental” was inspired by his “own paranoia about the concept of home-sharing,” adding that “the country is as divided as it’s ever been and no one trusts each other, yet we trust staying in the home of a stranger simply because of a few positive reviews online.” There’s something to be said about today’s convenience culture, and how the majority of us will readily use services like Airbnb, Uber, and Doordash because they are easy, without giving the people behind them a second thought. I think people are still going to value that convenience above all else, even their own safety; a film like “The Rental,” unnerving as it is, isn’t going to cancel home-sharing for the majority of people. But maybe—just maybe—it will cause you to pause before you hit “book.”
“The Rental” is playing in select theaters nationwide and will be available to watch on demand this Friday, July 24. Runtime: 88 minutes. Rated R. 4 out of 5 stars.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.