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On VOD: THE RENTAL (2020)

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THE RENTAL
(US - 2020)

Directed by Dave Franco. Written by Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg. Cast: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari. (R, 88 mins)

"This'll be over soon, I promise."

"This will never be over." 


A confident and very well-crafted directing debut from apparent master of horror Dave Franco, THE RENTAL aims to establish itself as the quintessential Airbnb-from-Hell thriller and the end result is a merciless screw-tightener where the tensions are already very quietly simmering from the start. Co-written by Franco and mumblecore vet Joe Swanberg, THE RENTAL is one of these films that pulls a 180 at the midpoint and becomes something completely different. A set-up like this will inevitably prove divisive, with some preferring the character-based drama of the first half while others will wish the whole thing was a home-invasion horror movie like the second half, but things are so off with these characters from the get-go that their weekend vacay was doomed one way or another. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT's Sheila Vand) are business partners at some unspecified trendy, Casual Friday-all-week-long startup. They have such an affectionate, touchy-feely camaraderie that it's a jarring surprise--barely a minute into the film--when her boyfriend Josh (SHAMELESS' Jeremy Allen White) pops into the office unannounced. Josh is also Charlie's younger brother, but he and Charlie's wife Michelle (Alison Brie, Franco's wife) are used to the harmlessly playful interaction between their significant others. To celebrate the closing of a lucrative deal, Charlie and Mina rent a huge oceanfront house on a cliff for weekend couples getaway.






Mina is already irked on the way there, since her attempt to reserve the weekend was denied while Charlie's was approved an hour later without hassle. Of Middle Eastern descent, Mina is convinced her last name (Mohammadi) is the reason for the rejection and once they meet the surly and vaguely intimidating Taylor (Toby Huss), things get off to a rocky start. "You own this place?" Mina incredulously asks the grizzled Taylor when she sees his beat-up pickup. "Why you gotta say it like that?" he replies. His brother actually owns the house--Taylor just manages the property and takes care of it. Offended by Mina's assumption that he can't possibly own a house like this and doing little to dispel the notion that the's kind of guy who has a problem with a surname like "Mohammadi," he prods a little further, asking her "How'd you get mixed up with this family?" The cringeworthy awkwardness of the confrontation (Huss is terrific with very minimal screen time) escalates when she confronts him about rejecting the rental application, leading to him angrily peeling out of the driveway. Things eventually settle down and they all go for a walk along the beach, where Charlie and Mina walk ahead of Josh and Michelle, with Josh expressing concern not so much about Charlie and Mina's work closeness ("They get pretty intense," Michelle says in a way that suggests it's frequently on her mind), but that the intelligent, successful Mina is out of his league, something Charlie and Michelle have felt all along. Recovering anger management case Josh is a Lyft driver and has been historically unmotivated, has always been in his brother's shadow, and spent a brief time in jail for beating the shit out of a guy in a bar fight, but sees Mina as the best thing that's happened to him and strives to be a better person because of her.


The tensions and the insecurities have long been there, silently accumulating, and there's nothing like a secluded weekend getaway in the middle of nowhere with some bonus molly to bring out the worst in everyone. Things happen. Things are said. Secrets are revealed. People make one wrong decision after another. Then Mina spots a small camera in the shower head of one of the bathrooms. Are they being watched by Taylor? Or someone else? What have they seen? Are there other cameras in the house? Why does a crawlspace under the porch have a secured door with a keypad? And what happened to Reggie, Josh's French bulldog that he brought along and kept hidden from Taylor because a "no pets" clause in the rental agreement?


Despite the immense popularity of Airbnbs (the term is never specifically invoked), there is something inherently risky about making the conscious decision to stay in the home of a stranger based almost entirely on positive reviews on an app. THE RENTAL plays on that fear, especially in the second half with the arrival of a black-gloved killer whose first appearance is a genuinely effective jolt. Franco wisely keeps this figure's onscreen presence to a minimum, but he's always lurking and watching. In his style and shot compositions, Franco has an undeniable flair for this sort of thing, and with the black gloves and a couple of visual shout-outs to Dario Argento's DEEP RED and Sergio Martino's TORSO, it's a good indication that either he or Swanberg are closet giallo nerds. It's a given that horror gatekeepers will bemoan the slow-burn character buildup of the first half before "it gets good," while Swanberg's mumblecore followers (he started out as part of that whole Duplass Brothers/Greta Gerwig crew that helped establish the movement in the mid '00s) will wish for more introspective relationship drama and ask why it had to turn into a slasher movie. But the transition is surprisingly smooth, largely due to the palpable unease that's established from the opening scene. Besides, Swanberg is no stranger to the horror genre, having been involved in various capacities in films like V/H/S, YOU'RE NEXT, 24 EXPOSURES, and THE SACRAMENT. The real surprise is Franco who, at least here, exhibits none of the self-indulgent, patience-testing tendencies of the "auteur" work of his older brother James, who proved with THE DISASTER ARTIST that he can make a good commercial movie, but usually just chooses not to. THE RENTAL doesn't reinvent the home invasion scenario, and it likely wasn't going to get a wide release anyway since it's from IFC (though In These Uncertain Times™,  it is getting some play at drive-ins), but it's exactly the kind of efficient scare machine that, in any other year, could've easily turned into a sleeper summer hit in theaters.

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