“The buildup works better than the payoff, leaving the film’s finale feeling abrupt and somewhat unfinished.”
by Ken Bakely
Different forms of conflict start early on in Dave Franco’s The Rental and build in unexpected and drastic ways, as the film shifts between genre approaches in building its rapidly escalating plot. It is at once an accomplished, ambitious work, and one that feels a little too rushed to really stick the landing and go for the big payoffs, but you couldn’t accuse it of lacking style. The plot concerns Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), two entrepreneurs who decide to celebrate the closing of a major deal by renting a sprawling seaside house for the weekend, bringing along their respective partners – Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie), and Mina has recently started dating Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White) – for the getaway. Starting ominously enough, after an unsettling encounter with the property’s disquieting and possibly racist owner (Toby Huss), the weekend only grows more discordant: longstanding personal drama between the four seems to come to a head in different ways, with the film initially resembling a chamber piece about strained interpersonal relationships and infidelity. But a series of sharp turns eventually plunge the movie into something different entirely – revelations that I won’t reveal here, but which tip the movie fully into the realms of horror.
Many of the shifts which follow are relatively well set-up, and Franco is good at establishing a humming sense of dread as he unpacks the sinister developments which await his already-unsettled characters. It’s in the growing chaos of the second and third acts that the film begins to truly show its cards, though it does so in a rather tentative way. In the execution, everything’s performed with great flair, but it isn’t quite enough to overcome a somewhat underwhelming script, written by Franco and Joe Swanberg. The Rental introduces many ideas and possibilities over the course of its runtime, and certainly delivers some strong thrills, yet it can’t stick the landing when it matters the most. The buildup works better than the payoff, leaving the film’s finale feeling abrupt and somewhat unfinished; as if it was felt that the movie’s finale was more of an obligation to complete than something to grow with the strength of the setup. It becomes evident that the movie’s strengths lie more in the particulars of its delivery. Make no mistake, Franco is a thoughtful filmmaker, good at setting a mood and delivering a jolt. This is backed up by Christian Sprenger’s atmospheric and layered cinematography, which establishes the story’s isolated setting with great efficiency, with the proceedings taking place against a backdrop of softly lit interiors with deep shadows lurking, or chilly, nighttime exteriors amongst deep forests and rocky cliffs.
The cast is also solid, with each of the four leads building a character who is put through the wringer of maintaining or enduring various secrets and deceptions, long before the most sinister events of the plot start to unfold; by the time things start getting especially chaotic, at around the halfway mark, Stevens, White, Brie, and Vand have built up enough of a tense rapport that it can only add to the suspense. But eventually, everything comes back to the disappointing notion that The Rental never seems to quite have the wherewithal or focus to give everything its due in the same way. It clearly demonstrates moments where it can combine its varying approaches and create something uniquely effective, but this isn’t representative of the movie as a whole, and it loses a lot of its detailed precision as it nears its end. There’s something clearly fascinating to be had here, not least of which comes in the introduction of Franco as a director with a keen eye for aesthetic detail. Yet this also makes its plotting shortcomings all the more disappointing; there’s clearly a lot of potential here, and the cast and crew are game to realize it, but the movie never quite gets to where it should be going.