In his directorial debut, Dave Franco imbues well-worn horror tropes with distinctly modern anxieties, capitalizing on the inherently strange dynamic of renting someone else’s personal home through Airbnb. With the homeowner (or, in the case of this film, a relative of the homeowner) possessing keys to all locks, and perhaps harboring a sense of territoriality, conditions are ripe for violating boundaries. The occasional news headlines about hidden cameras or overt bigotry during the booking process serve as prologue to The Rental, a moody, mildly unnerving film that blends interpersonal conflict with thriller and slasher elements, succeeding largely through an atmosphere of simmering tension and dedicated performances by a talented cast.

When two young couples head to the Oregon coast to cut loose with a weekend of creature comforts and debauchery, they’re faced with a lingering sense of suspicion from the start. After all, Mina (Sheila Vand) is certain her rental application was rejected due to her non-Anglo-sounding last name, because her white boyfriend’s brother, Charlie (Dan Stevens), was able to easily book the picturesque seaside estate only minutes later. Suspicions appear confirmed in a confrontation with the vaguely menacing caretaker, Taylor (Toby Huss), who ripples with implied disdain under a thin veneer of hospitality. Taylor seemingly comes and goes as he pleases, at one point entering the house unannounced to make a delivery. Even as the group tries to kick back and enjoy themselves, other strange occurrences cannot be overlooked, as Mina and her boyfriend, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), discover a hidden door secured with a keypad and Josh’s dog goes missing.

But despite these external threats, it’s the interpersonal conflicts that complicate matters most. When Charlie’s wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), decides to turn in early rather than take ecstasy with everyone else, the stage is set for Mina and Charlie to make poor decisions and betray those they purport to love. Their indiscretion is compounded when Mina finds hard evidence that the group is being surveilled, and the tension begins boiling over as it becomes clear the unseen menace could destroy their respective relationships if they go to the authorities. At this point, Franco—who also co-wrote the film—turns the screws on characters driven apart by their sins just as they should be uniting to fight a common enemy, half the characters effectively self-sabotaging the group.

In the film’s second half, Franco switches gears from psychological thriller to full-on slasher mode, complete with breathy POV shots from outside the home that hearken back to Black Christmas and Halloween. The Rental seldom feels novel, but through its lived-in characters, particularly Mina and Charlie, it exudes a freshness that belies its obligatory genre hallmarks. Franco’s script, co-written by Joe Swanberg, offers enough surprises to keep the viewer off-balance, but it’s the atmosphere of dread he creates that makes the film worthy of occupying the viewer’s time. There’s little here that hasn’t been done before, but The Rental taps into a sense of unease thrumming just beneath the surface of the mundane, accommodating both discomforting character-driven drama and paranoia-fueled horror.

Dave Franco imbues well-worn horror tropes with distinctly modern anxieties, capitalizing on the inherently strange dynamic of renting someone else’s personal home.
65 %
Moody & Unnerving
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