Synopsis – Two couples rent a vacation home for what should be a celebratory weekend get-away.
My Take – With actor, screenwriter, comedian, film producer, television producer, academic, painter, writer and director, James Franco, continuing to churn out a mix variety of projects every year, it seemed imminent that his younger brother, Dave Franco, known best for starring in films like The Disaster Artist, Nerve and The Little Hours, along with supporting roles in the Now You See Me series, Jump Street series, and the Neighbors duology, among others, would also make the shift to working behind the camera.
And like many of his contemporaries, who are turning towards screenwriting or directing, it also doesn’t come as a surprise that Dave Franco decided to test all his skill and experience by going the horror route, probably the only genre James Franco himself hasn’t touched. But what surprised me was his selection of the story, after all don’t we see a bunch of B graded home invasion and voyeuristic horror films coming out on VOD and DVD every year?
Thankfully, as a first timer, he comes out swinging confidently, as the film while not the most innovative ever made, can be best enjoyed when you don’t know what’s coming.
Yes, it does suffer from a lack of ambition, as the film derives its chills not from lurking murderers, but from complicated relationships, and kind of falls apart in the final act, however, it holds your interest for a crisp 88 minutes, delivering an engaging, even sexy story that doesn’t necessarily go the direction you’d expect. Most importantly, as a director Franco seems to know his cast well and guides them to some fine performances, and the goodwill built up in the first two acts isn’t completely lost by any measure.
There’s a coda that suggests this film could have a sequel if so inclined, but as a one-and-done this is a satisfying and engaging modern twist on the home invasion and slasher genres. Plus, it has Franco’s wife, Alison Brie, who always seems to make everything she’s in better.
The story follows Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), two business partners, who before starting working on an upcoming big project decide to rent out a remote vacation house located at the top of a perilous cliff, in order to spend a weekend partying and relaxing with their respective partners, Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who also happens to be Charlie’s younger brother.
While their weekend starts off calmly as they would expect despite a uncomfortable stint with the caretaker of the spot, Taylor (Toby Huss), who seems to be giving out obvious racist vibes towards Mina, the night gets more interesting when Michelle introduces drugs into the mix.
But things begin to go out of hand the moment Michelle and Josh doze off, as Charlie and Mina end up getting intimate, and then find out the very next morning that their tryst in the shower was videotaped. Of course, that may not be their biggest problem, as a stranger seems to be lurking outside, watching and listening to everything they are doing and saying.
To his credit, director Franco keeps you guessing right up to the end. Though there are a few telltale signs of something menacing afoot, an ominously locked door, a couple voyeuristic POV shots, much of the first half of the film plays like a straight drama, establishing the conflicts simmering between two couples on a weekend getaway.
And for most of the film, Franco and co-screenwriter Joe Swanberg are content to focus on the relationships, as they lay the groundwork for the characters without the need for too much exposition, and we learn far more about them through the actor’s performances and little hints in the dialogue than any amount of explained backstory. Josh is a bit of a screw-up and he doesn’t feel he’s worthy of his high-achieving girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Charlie loves his kid brother, but judges him, too. There’s a wonderfully telling scene where Charlie gives Josh grief for thinking that cavemen and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time. Meanwhile, the slightly straight-laced but chipper Michelle already has reason to be suspicious of her husband, not only did cheat on his previous girlfriend to be with her, but Josh innocently blurts out that he cheated on another girlfriend before that.
It’s not the most exciting glimpse at relationships, but director Franco makes it engaging enough as he patiently lets conversations play out.
As a director has a firm understanding of setting up the mood and building tension on numerous fronts. He sets the ambiance just right in moments like a serene hike through the woods, the rolling fog during a nighttime hot tub dip or the sudden drop of a cliff. This is an encouraging debut for him and with better focus on his story, he could become a very strong dual threat.
However, as much as the film succeeds in its two acts, the film does trip itself up a bit in the final act. At first it feels like the film maybe interested in fully committing to psychological thriller set-up, and seems to be making a creepy play at the privacy implications in a modern shared economy.
But when director Franco tries to ratchet up the scares even further by adding an unnamed attacker to the mix, a masked killer who is unusually patient, taking his time to observe before beginning his mind games by taunting them with what he knows and what he’s recorded over the course of their stay, the revelation feels like more of a left turn in the plot than an unexpected twist in this foursome’s unfortunate weekend, making it a very weird fit.
His actions seem too personal for the standard boogeyman. Despite the breadcrumbs they place earlier, the film doesn’t pay this crucial piece off with any form of connection. But if there is to be a follow-up, director Franco and Swanberg need to up their skills in fleshing out characters and adding subtext. Fold those attributes into their already finely developed knack for creating tension and foreboding doom, and they might be onto something. As is, the film shows tremendous promise.
Franco even cast his film quite well as the four main actors play their respective roles admirably. Alison Brie continues to be gorgeously likable enough, Dan Stevens continues to impress, an actor seemingly able to jump into any role in any genre and fully embrace it, Sheila Vand manages to be her character complex and rootable at the same time, and Jeremy Allen White seems to bringing an extension of his Shameless character here. In a small role, Toby Huss is efficient. On the whole, ‘The Rental’ is an efficient non-threatening domestic horror which despite a faulty final act is entertaining enough with an engaging cast and a few genuinely creepy moments.
Directed – Dave Franco
Rated – R
Run Time – 88 minutes