Studio: IFC Films
Director: Dave Franco
Writer: Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg
Producer: Dave Franco, Elizabeth Haggard, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Joe Swanberg, Christopher Storer
Stars: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari
A rental property getaway becomes a haunting experience for two couples when they start suspecting someone may be spying on them.
Whenever an established actor makes his/her directorial debut in the indie film space, you can pretty much count on a character-intensive project driven by top-notch acting talent. That¡¯s how it is with Dave Franco¡¯s ¡°The Rental,¡± a dramatic thriller that¡¯s heavy on the former, not so much on the latter. Sharing a profession gives an actor-turned-director and his/her cast a unique vocabulary for shaping performances through a sixth sense of subtlety that eases the challenge of tuning tone.
It certainly seems that way here, what with how Dan Stevens, Alison Brie and company effortlessly inflate average people with third dimensions. You can see the big boon an experienced actor brings when Charlie (Stevens) gives his wife Michelle (Brie) information she already knows. Speaking in a declarative sentence, Charlie reminds Michelle for our benefit, ¡°My brother is a barely employed Lyft driver who got kicked out of college and served jail time for nearly beating a guy to death outside his frat house.¡±
Dan Stevens recognizes he has the unrewarding responsibility of delivering exposition via forced dialogue. So what does he do? He gives those words the dryness they deserve. Charlie sits in bed distractedly looking down at his phone while vacantly speaking from the side of his mouth. It¡¯s a casual snip of seemingly immaterial creativity that keeps the line from reading as woodenly as it is written. Only engaged veterans can mold biographical bits into a moment that says something about the speaker too. Whether it¡¯s intonation or simply a specifically-timed head turn, ¡°The Rental¡¯s¡± roster does this repeatedly to hide additional implications inside ordinary scenes.
As much as the movie is Dave Franco¡¯s baby, ¡°The Rental¡± bears the greased fingerprints of mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg, who co-wrote the screenplay. Swanberg¡¯s arthouse influence on interpersonal exchanges can be heard early and often. So much so in fact, if you wandered into ¡°The Rental¡± without knowing anything about it, you¡¯d spend the first 35 minutes assuming the film is a straight-laced character study of four middle class thirty-somethings navigating problematic relationships.
Charlie and Michelle may be married, but uncomfortable heat burns between Charlie and his business partner Mina. It isn¡¯t just the ring on Charlie¡¯s finger preventing exploration of their attraction. Mina happens to be dating Josh, otherwise known as Charlie¡¯s hotheaded burnout brother.
To celebrate some arbitrary career success, the two couples rent a spacious getaway with a gorgeous ocean view. Property manager Taylor weirdly snubs Mina when she tries booking the house, creating an apparently race-based rift that continues percolating when Taylor also comes and goes without respecting anyone¡¯s privacy. Suspicions escalate again when odd hints suggest someone might be secretly spying on the quartet.
Before we can come to the tense turn that fully pivots the slow-roasting atmosphere, we have to first deal with everyone¡¯s pretty people drama. Charlie and Mina of course have to toe a fine line between vague flirting and daring to fulfill their unspoken mutual fantasy. Josh¡¯s status as a chronic under-achiever has him feeling insecure in his lopsided romance with Mina. Semi-speaking of checkered pasts, revelations regarding Charlie¡¯s infidelity with previous girlfriends raise doubts in Michelle she didn¡¯t have before the holiday.
Plenty of viewers expecting something sinister to happen soon will check out of ¡°The Rental,¡± mentally if not physically, because of this conversation-based climb of hanging out in a hot tub, taking hikes, and cursorily getting to know these four folks over drinks like we¡¯re sharing a room in the same house. ¡°The Rental¡± rolls its reality into a ball from the outside in, stumbling into the narrative organically almost like a Mike Leigh film from the 1990s or, well, a Joe Swanberg joint from the 2000s. Only the last act directly addresses the mystery stalker. Getting maximum return out of an investment in the movie requires putting yourself in these people¡¯s shoes, Michelle¡¯s most of all, and imagining the sheer terror of seeing every thread in your life completely unravel in mere minutes.
Suspense seeps in slowly. When it finally covers all surfaces, ¡°The Rental¡± violently breaks its gearshift switching into a traditional thriller toasted with slasher elements. I¡¯d assess ¡°The Rental¡± as effectively entertaining overall, even though its oil and water blend of two genres doesn¡¯t mix cleanly together for all tastes.
Attention has to wed with a willingness to watch these performers play an adult version of House for a prominent portion of the runtime. The high quality cast does everything they conceivably can to create characterizations worth plugging into, though it¡¯s up to audiences to give ¡°The Rental¡± a long leash to develop the environment around them. The movie¡¯s initial mundanity might understandably keep you from staying for the entire term. If nothing else however, if you ever want to convince your friends why an Airbnb getaway presents frightening prospects, show them ¡°The Rental¡± and watch how fast they decide to stay home instead.
Review Score: 65