Another 2020 release the COVID-19 pandemic impacted, Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, saw modest success at a time where release delays were commonplace. Franco’s psychological thriller opened up in a handful of movie theatres while simultaneously landing on Apple TV. And audiences were pretty receptive giving The Rental a seal of approval. In general, critics were fairly impressed as well.
Charlie, his wife Michelle, join his younger brother Josh along with Josh’s girlfriend, and Charlie’s coworker Mina, for a weekend getaway at a remote seaside cottage rental. Things start on shaky ground when Mina has an awkward encounter with the racist caretaker Taylor. From that point onward, the weekend slowly descends into paranoia and mistrust amongst the two couples. A night filled with drugs leads to an irreversible mistake that will haunt everyone. And when Mina discovers that someone has been watching them with hidden cameras in the rental the buried hostilities will push everyone to a point of no return.
The Rental Is a Familiar But Remarkably Restrained Psychological Thriller
Not bad for a first try. As far as debut directorial efforts go, Dave Franco immediately impresses with psychological thriller, The Rental. What’s most immediately noticeable is Franco’s ability to introduce and sustain tension. Nothing in inherently new about either the setup or the story Franco co-wrote with Joe Swanberg (V/H/S, You’re Next). Nonetheless, The Rental introduces its characters – alongside their various insecurities – in tight fashion before almost immediately putting them in subtly tense situations. Mina’s first interaction with Taylor, for instance, is a well-developed bit of awkward discomfort. Moreover, Franco shows restraint in tipping the various small dominos that set the characters’ fates in motion. As for The Rental’s climax, it immediately pays off the methodical build-up that proceeded it.
What’s most immediately noticeable is Franco’s ability to introduce and sustain tension.
Right around the middle act, Franco loosens his grip just a bit on atmosphere and tension. As Franco and Swanberg’s story explores its characters indiscretions and teases their consequences, The Rental goes kind of goes in circles. This is in part of a function of the inevitability of this plot point and the holding pattern the movie engages in before launching forward. At just 88 minutes, however, The Rental remains a tightly paced thriller. And Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score ensures that there’s always a feeling of unease characterizing the onscreen action. Once The Rental does hit its finale, Franco eases things into more obvious horror movie territory. Even if the violence, like the rest of the movie, remains restrained, audiences will likely feel shocked at the sudden tonal shift.
The Rental Books Strong Performances from a Stellar Cast
The Rental also benefits from a strong cast that sells the juxtaposition of closeness and mistrust amongst its four characters. Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens long ago shed the stuffy British thespian image courtesy of roles in The Guest and Apostle as well as the offbeat superhero series, Legion. Stevens brings a certain ‘everyman’ charm that allows him to easily blend with the story and convince as a subtly flawed man. As his younger bother ‘Josh’, Jeremy Allen White (Shameless) adds a bit of emotional complexity to what could have very easily been a one-note character. If Alison Brie (Scream 4, Mad Men) initially seems miscast, she sets aside any doubts with her performance in the movie’s second act.
Stevens brings a certain ‘everyman’ charm that allows him to easily blend with the story and convince as a subtly flawed man.
Arguably, Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) delivers The Rental’s best performance. Franco and Swanberg’s screenplay also gives her a bit more emotional weight with which to work. But The Rental also lets down Vand to some extent. That is, Franco and Swanberg introduce the idea of racism and craft some early tension between Mina and Taylor. However, it’s more of a bait-and-switch plot, or red herring, designed to divert the audience’s attention.
The Rental Marks an Impressive Directorial Debut for Franco
Though there’s nothing inherently original about The Rental, Franco’s directorial debut shows a remarkable amount of restraint with its subject. In addition to the interesting dynamic among its principal characters, The Rental is a consistently tense movie that overcomes a somewhat uneven act. Even when Franco lets his thriller transition into more horror territory he never lets things spiral out of control. The thriller’s overall effect is to leave audiences feeling unsettled and uncomfortable. Even Franco’s ambiguous hint at a potential sequel doesn’t feel out of place. There’s likely an audience out there that would happily book themselves in for a sequel.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+