Following a steady rise to fame since his big screen debut in 2007’s Superbad (people really don’t forget, Greg), Dave Franco has stepped behind the cameras and made his directorial debut. It’s hard to pin down exactly what Franco’s typical genre is considering his roles in the hilarious 21 Jump Street, the stunning drama If Beale Street Could Talk, and whatever the hell 6 Underground was, but a slow-burn single location thriller wouldn’t have been the expected choice to launch his writer-director career.
Taking a much needed and restful weekend away, Michelle (Alison Brie) and Charlie (Dan Stevens) are joined by Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and his girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand) in booking a fancy house on the coast. The house seems almost too good to be true, something that invariably comes to fruition once the housekeeper, Taylor (Toby Huss), starts meddling.
The Rental’s set up is truly as bare bones as possible. Two couples go to a house; things aren’t as they seem. This can work in a film’s favour where they take the simple premise and launch it into something transcendent (see: Mad Max Fury Road), or it can limit your possibilities by being too simple. While it’s abundantly clear that Franco is going to be a director to look out for in the future, The Rental doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, despite a lot of promise.
Michelle & Charlie and Josh & Sheila are as seemingly perfect couples as you could wish for, madly in love and supportive of one another. Brie and Stevens bare the brunt of it on a performance level as the most experienced actors here, and while Stevens’ American accent is somewhat shaky in spots, his Charlie is as charming as he is slimy as his ulterior motives begin to slowly reveal themselves. Brie, meanwhile, spends much of the weekend in isolation, being a confidant to others but shouldering their worries in a way that will slowly but surely wear her down.
Throughout, a lack of character development becomes a problem. Each of our four main players have a personality trait that stays with them and very little happens to change their traits for better or for worse. Charlie is the playboy, Josh is the hothead, Mina is confrontational, and Michelle is sensible. They start the film this way, and they end the film in the exact same way. I’m hopeful Franco can work on his characters as he progresses, because it seems a shame to have such talented actors and give them such one-note roles to play.
Behind the camera, Franco showcases a level of confidence you love to see in a novice director. As oxymoronic as it sounds, he has a firm understanding of restrained flair. I don’t say this lightly, but it reminded me of the kind of restraint Spielberg has in his films. The Spielberg One Shot is one of his trademarks, and it’s a technique that Franco deploys often here. He slowly trails his characters, almost eavesdropping on their conversations as they move throughout the gorgeously designed and decorated house. Franco uses the space well and you’ll be as confident wandering around the house as any of the characters would be. From a geographic standpoint, the titular rental home is as well-established as any of the characters.
That eavesdropping sensation creates a palpable sense of unease throughout. Tension is built well, it’s just a shame that the build up doesn’t really lead anywhere. Earlier, I said that The Rental was a slow-burn thriller; it’s a really slow burn. It reveals curiosities and mysteries around the house at a fairly steady rate (a locked door here, a surprise gift there), but there comes a point of no return where these are concerned. Frustratingly, by the film’s end, the mysteries remain just that, a mystery. You’re left to put together the disparate puzzle pieces on your own time which can very easily result in a disappointing experience.
This feeling of disappointment stayed with me once the credits rolled, however, the puzzling nature of the film means it stays with you long after the fact. In the days afterwards, the blink and you’ll miss it clues start to add up and force you to engage with what we’ve seen. The seemingly pointless moments start to tell you something and the moments you thought would be important were red herrings all along. It’s not as simple as a story that’s over within the mercifully brisk 88 minutes; this is a story that started long before we started watching and will continue after we’ve left.
It’s a very hard film to talk about without delving into spoiler territory, but hopefully I’ve given enough of an idea of what to expect when you watch The Rental. What it lacks in interesting characters, it makes up for by being a stylish little thriller with an idea that will stay with you after the credits have rolled. It’s very well made, and the single-location style coupled with some light (and blunt) social commentary is a clear attempt from Franco to create his own Hitchcockian thriller. It certainly grew on me after the film finished, and it showed enough talent from Dave Franco as a filmmaker to make me want to watch his directorial career with interest.
Directed by: Dave Franco
Written by: Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg
Cast: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand