Film Review – The Rental
The premise is all too familiar. A group of people travel out to a remote location for a weekend getaway, only to fall prey to an unknown danger stalking them from the shadows. There have been countless horror films that have utilized this set up: whether it be a cabin in the woods, a hotel, a secluded island, etc. – you name the place and somebody has probably made a thriller set there.
So what makes The Rental (2020) worth watching? One big reason is Dave Franco, who goes behind the camera to make his feature length debut both as a director and co-writer (pairing up with indie veteran Joe Swanberg). Together, the two construct a story that has all of the usual trappings of the genre – horror and thriller fans will not be too surprised by what happens here. But they do so with such efficiency that we cannot deny the skill in the craftsmanship. Often, a movie in which a mysterious threat terrorizes a group can be off putting – there isn’t much fun to be had watching people getting brutally killed just for the sake of it. But Franco and Swanberg put just enough consideration into their characters to keep us connected with them.
Our four protagonists are all distinct enough to avoid being stereotypes. They all have their own personalities, good and bad. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (Alison Brie) are married. Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) is dating Charlie’s coworker Mina (Sheila Vand). The four decide to rent a pretty cliffside home for a weekend of fun, but right away we notice tensions starting to surface. Charlie and Mina work together all the time and are close. This draws curious looks from Josh, who has had a history of letting his emotions get to him. The situation also causes unease with Michelle. Despite giving the appearance of happiness, Charlie and Michelle’s relationship started off on the wrong foot and has been teetering on the edge of stability ever since.
Viewers expecting this to dive into the horror right away are going to be sorely disappointment. Franco spends a considerable amount of time building the dynamics between the leads, focusing on the drama between them. I say this as a compliment. Too often movies will introduce their characters simply as types, used only for a means for the killer to dispose of. The intelligence of the writing and directing allows for Charlie, Michelle, Mina, and Josh to breathe and exist – to show us who they are. That way, when the terror finally does arrive, we are emotionally invested in what becomes of them. This could be considered just as much of a character drama than a horror film, and that is a good thing.
That’s not to say Franco and his production skimp out on the scares, because there are plenty of them. It comes in gradually – first as nervous tension, then as a legitimate risk, and then all out peril. Franco does a good job of building up the suspense. Taylor (Toby Huss) is the man who rents the property to the group. He may seem like your average blue-collar Joe, but there is an air about him that feels strange, and the way he comes and goes from the house without giving proper notice is just plain creepy. Things take an even scarier turn when, in the midst of taking a shower, Mina discovers what looks to be a camera lens in the shower head.
Franco’s directing style is not overtly flashy but more restrained, sometimes even elegant. The cinematography (Christian Sprenger) moves but not in a herky-jerky fashion. It often glides throughout scenes, tracking left and right. When Franco wants to key in on a small clue or detail, the camera will slowly zoom in on it. Even when the narrative jumps into full out horror, the visuals remain steady. As characters run in and out of the house or through a nearby forest, the picture floats with them as though mounted on a steady cam. Franco exhibits a classical approach here, understanding that he can still generate fear without having to shake his camera like a maraca.
This is an impressive debut from Franco, but the film is far from perfect. Like mentioned before, there are no big surprises, and the writing does display some moments of contrivance (who knew that a killer could send a text message or turn a TV on with such perfect timing?). Don’t try searching for an explanation for what happens, all of the answers are left ambiguous, which might not satisfy those wanting concrete closure. But with all that said, The Rental is a solid first outing for its director, displaying patience and maturity for material that could have easily fallen into cheap exploitation. It’s worth a watch.