[Review] 'The Rental' is a Somewhat Forgettable Stay Saved by Excellent Casting and Prickling Atmosphere
Okay, before this goes any further, I think we should clear a few things up...
...First, if the Airbnb ad says ‘no pets’, it means no pets. Second, if the weekend starts with cultural microaggressions at the hands of the homeowner, maybe don’t stay. Lastly, and I feel like this should go without saying, don’t try to cover up accidental deaths; it’s messy and often gets way more complicated than anyone ever seems to anticipate. So just, kinda, don’t.
But, if you’re anything like the shockingly well-cast characters in Dave Franco’s feature directorial debut written with Joe Swanberg, The Rental, you’re not going to listen.
When we enter the mix Mina (Sheila Vand) and Charlie (Dan Stevens) are cozied up with each other appraising the titular rental. Enter Josh (Jeremy Allen White), Charlie’s brother and Mina’s boyfriend. Suddenly the dynamic in the room has changed (Is it hot in here? Are you hot? I’m hot) and we realize that Mina and Charlie are simply co-workers and what we witnessed were co-workers engaged in typical co-worker behavior, very slowly and sensually patting one another on the back and shopping for romantic weekend lodgings.
While readying for bed Charlie wonders aloud to his wife Michelle (Alison Brie) how his screw-up Lyft driver brother managed to win over his “total package” and definitely-just-a-co-worker Mina. “She’s good for him,” posits Michelle. Phew, now the audience can rest absolutely assured that nothing untoward is going to transpire between Charlie and Mina during this secluded and romantic seaside holiday.
The trip gets off to a rocky start when Josh ignores the rental’s no pet policy and brings his dog. Things don’t improve much when the squad meets Taylor (Toby Huss), the property manager/homeowner’s brother who maybe, sort of, might be racist. At the very least he’s creepy and entirely off-putting. But who cares about microaggressions and uncomfortable allusions to peeping tommery when there’s a hot tub and molly?
Inhibitions and sanities begin to dissolve when the molly leads to an illicit tryst and the discovery that the couples might be under surveillance. The guilty parties’ consciences begin to catch up with them and their attempt to conceal the truth has tragic consequences. Which they inevitably handle quite poorly.
It’s important to note early that this isn’t a film for those looking for a neat package. A dearth of easily digestible answers and clear-cut motives will leave some with hunger pains and a bitter taste in their mouths. But if atmosphere and a dose of dread are your gig then you’ll leave full. You might even have a doggy bag.
The Rental has atmosphere in spades. The house itself is exactly what you might conjure in your mind were someone to say, “Okay, now imagine a seaside summer house.” Wooden beams, high ceilings, a mash-up of rustic and modern, sprawling rooms, top to bottom windows, cliffs, beaches, ocean reeds and grasses bending in the wind, and waves crashing in the distance. It’s a visually sumptuous affair.
Another thing in abundance in The Rental is quality casting. Given Franco’s lean and frankly basic script I’m surprised he got the amount and caliber of talent he did. I suppose that’s where industry clout comes in. Regardless, the cast each turn in a solid performance that elevates the project, likely beyond where it could have hoped to be without them. In particular it’s nice to see Vand stepping in as the nearest thing to an emotional anchor throughout.
Franco’s use of racism and microaggressions were a fresh and culturally relevant choice in 2020. It’s not often we see it used in a way beyond the thematic focus of the project. I hesitate to say I was glad it was used, because it’s awful on face value, but I appreciate it simply because it’s a real and authentic thing that deserves to be exposed and skewered when possible. Mina doesn’t wilt against it either; she challenges it at every turn, layering on our discomfort with Taylor.
It may not ultimately satisfy, but The Rental has enough going for it to work. Vacations, particularly in secluded locales, are perfect settings for built-in dread. The isolation does a lot of the work and leaves the rest to be handled by scripting and performance. Despite the superb cast and location, the thin character work and lack of ultimate satisfaction render it somewhat forgettable. As its title suggests, this is a film best rented rather than owned.
The Rental is distributed by IFC Films and will release in theaters, select drive-ins and on VOD on July 24th.
By Paul Bauer