Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 88 minutes
Directed by: Dave Franco
Director Dave Franco’s THE RENTAL doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot to stray from expected formulas in a genre filled with remote cabins in the woods, ghosts of the past haunting the present and weirdo stalkers looking to murder youths gone wild. This horror-thriller, written by Franco and mumblecore king Joe Swanberg, centers on a celebratory weekend between two secretive couples souring and turning sinister once a mysterious voyeur makes himself an uninvited guest. While Big Sur’s jagged cliffs and inhospitable shoreline provide the perfect backdrop for the rocky relationships’ ruination, the dramatics hoping to catch these characters in an undertow are far less than powerful and fail to knock anyone off their feet. This is a dreadfully pointless picture.
After closing a big deal for their company, Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his work partner Mina (Sheila Vand) are looking to rent a vacation home hoping to surprise their significant others – Charlie’s personality-bereft wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina’s quick-tempered boyfriend/ Charlie’s ex-convict brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White). And they’ve found a perfect one located in a fairly secluded hamlet. Well, almost perfect. The intense, casually racist caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss) doesn’t exactly get off on the right foot with his weekend tenants. Before their arrival, he’d suspiciously denied Mina’s rental application because of her Middle Eastern heritage. Mina and Josh have also broken the rental’s rules of no dogs allowed, smuggling their French Bulldog Reggie onto the property.
As the two pairs settle in for an uninhibited weekend of relaxation, they start to take stock of their relationships and life’s entanglements. Fissures in both couple’s romances appear. Michelle confesses to Josh she’s jealous of Mina working so close to her husband and Josh confesses to her about his co-dependency towards Mina. It also comes out that Charlie cheated a lot in his past so Michelle, who surprisingly is blindsided by this news, has reason to worry. When drugs are introduced into the mix, Charlie and Mina find themselves in a pickle.
Franco finds unsettling power in static shots and dissolves, especially in the opening drive sequence, recalling THE SHINING’s drive to the Overlook Hotel. Further atmospheric tension is crafted through steadied close-ups where the creepy peeper is spying on the couples, his belabored breathing echoing in a cavernous divide. It’s also commendable that the filmmakers don’t kill the dog, given the film’s genre. However, he’s maddeningly neglected quite a few times and used as a device when needed.
There’s not much else that works successfully. Romantic discord dominates rather than the slasher shenanigans as the premise and trailer promise. This isn’t about the murderer’s kill count; instead it’s about how the slights they’ve caused each other have already killed their relationships. Though that’s an admirable sentiment, it’s ham-handedly executed in this genre mash-up. It becomes a chamber piece representing morality: Will their guilty consciences force them to confess their innermost feelings, or are these problems going to be repressed? Is a psychopathic murderer the problem, or will they figure out they’re actually the problem?
Not only do Franco and Swanberg lay down clichéd scenarios and predictable struggles for their characters to explore, they also employ obtuse red herrings and obvious breadcrumbs. Whether it be a missing telescope or a hot tub needing service, Taylor finds an excuse to return. There are moments where they try too hard to conjure fear, like when Mina and Josh find a suspicious locked storage area under the deck. Mina calls it “creepy.” It’s not. Lots of properties have owner’s closets that are off-limits to renters. The only difference is this one is outdoors. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score is tasked with the heavy lifting, surprising audiences with cheap jump scares, which aren’t the least bit scary.
Franco and Swanberg eschew traditional structure, seemingly free-forming their plot, character quirks and situational hijinks. It all builds to a unspectacular end – one that sequel-baits during the end credits. This proves particularly annoying, because if they had laid out their three acts properly, the picture wouldn’t drag in act two and would feel deeply satisfying in act three’s payoff. As is, this one won’t scare you into cancelling your Airbnb reservation. It’ll hardly terrify you enough to arm your home alarm.
THE RENTAL opens in select drive-ins, theaters and on demand on July 24.