Dave Franco isn’t a name typically associated with horror or thrillers. After roles in several comedies, including Scrubs, The Disaster Artist (2017), and 21 Jump Street (2012), he makes his directorial debut with IFC Films The Rental. Overall, the movie is a mixed bag with a few pacing issues, but despite that, it’s an entertaining thriller with some cool throwbacks to Hitchcock and a recognizable cast that plays off each other well. It’s a film that has more highs than lows, especially for a debut.
The Rental centers on two couples on an oceanside getaway. They become suspicious of the rental house after they learn someone may be spying on them. On top of that, two of them hook up behind their significant others’ backs, thus upping the tension. You knew it would happen the moment that they slipped into the hot tub together. These various conflicts feed off of each other in a well-scripted storyline that only falters in the last act.
Horror fans will recognize Sheila Vand, star of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Here, she plays Mina, a character just as assertive, who accuses the property manager, Taylor (Toby Huss), of refusing to rent the beach house to her previously because of her Middle Eastern name. He makes a good candidate for a creepy voyeur.
Mina’s partner, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), will be familiar to viewers as Lip Gallagher from “Shameless.” His character in The Rental isn’t a far cry from Lip. Both are screw-ups trying to get their lives together, and White’s performance is one of the strongest in the film. You really feel for the guy, especially when he confesses that he doesn’t understand what Mina sees in him. He’s a college dropout, always in the shadow of his successful brother. Mina is the best thing in his life, and you want things to work out between them. He’s a sympathetic and likable character.
The rest of the cast is balanced out by the other couple, Charlie (Dan Stevens), who is Josh’s brother, and Michelle, played by Franco’s wife, Alison Brie of “Community” fame. The characters generally have enough weight to their storylines to remain interesting throughout the 90-minute run time, and the affair between Charlie and Mina cuts into the seemingly perfect friendships and partnerships. Add in the spying factor, including cameras in shower, and all around the house, as we eventually learn, and you have plenty of suspense and mystery to keep viewers engaged.
The set-up may be too slow for some viewers before a fairly wild and fast-paced last act, but Franco, who co-wrote the film with Joe Swanberg, spends time letting us get to know these characters and the dynamics of their relationships, so when the affair happens, and when Charlie and Mina try to keep it hush, hush, it has greater impact. It raises the stakes and makes the footage captured, specifically a shower scene, that much more detrimental.
The Hitchcock references, especially the voyeurism, are a nice touch. The shower scenes echo Psycho, but when Charlie and Mina joke about spying on neighbors with a telescope, the nod to Rear Window is obvious. In fact, the film’s real creep factor lies in the idea of being watched. It will make you check the shower head the next time you stay at a hotel or rental house. It’s also why the last act doesn’t quite stick. The film suddenly becomes a slasher movie when we were set up for something different, more of a psychological thriller, heavy on the idea of voyeurism and who’s watching who.
Additionally, the killings happen so quickly in the final 15-20 minutes that you wish they were spread out. Some of the murders, however, are creative, and the killer often comes out of nowhere, frequently shrouded in fog. By the time you see him, it’s too late. To add to the mystery, Franco usually doesn’t center the killer in the frame. Instead, you see only his arm, his face, or other glimpses. Other times, you only see the back of his head. It’s an effective technique that makes the kills shocking and keeps the viewer guessing.
While the fog may be effective at times, especially for the killings, at other items, it’s overdone. Someone should have told Franco to go easier on the fog machines because it sometimes obscures the main characters and makes certain shots too dark. Much of the film takes place at nightime, and it works in terms of establishing mood and atmosphere, but the fog becomes too obstructive to the picture at certain points.
When The Rental works, it really works. We can feel someone watching the characters, even in their most private moments. Franco also co-wrote layered characters with dynamics that enhance the conflict. The only flat character is the killer, which is a shame because the conclusion depends so much on him, but we know so little about him. That said, despite its faults, The Rental is worth the time. It has a great cast and enough edge-of-your-seat moments to make it entertaining. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see Franco behind the camera, strengthening his chops as a director.
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