A diabolically clever script by actor-turned-director Dave Franco and mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg, The Rental has a simple premise: Take two couples with volatile sexual dynamics, have them rent an AirBNB for a weekend on the rugged Oregon coast, mix in secret cameras and the presence of a peeping psycho, and spike the steadily-building suspense with psychological insights. Yes, this is well-covered territory — see the recent You Should Have Left, which didn’t work at all. Yet Franco’s behind-the-cameras debut is sure to strike a chord for COVID-trapped audiences. Just make sure that when you watch it on VOD, the lights are low enough to make you feel alone in the dark.
The first-time director has help scaring folks silly, courtesy of the slithery camerawork from Christian Sprenger and a jangling score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. But what elevates The Rental is the dynamite acting from the four leads. Dan Stevens is Charlie, the group’s resident Mr. Cool who initiated the rental. Since his days as the romantic and doomed Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey, Stevens has dodged the perils of type casting, going dark in The Guest and TV’s Legion, and daffy in Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. As the dick-ish host, Stevens shows how surface charm can curdle around the edges. You can feel his attraction to Mina, played by the electrifying Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), as they celebrate the success of their tech start-up.
There is a drawback. Mina is dating Charlie’s hothead, dropout, part-time Lyft driver brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White of Shameless) and Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie); both are a little late picking up on the Charlie-Mina vibe. “They have their creativity going on,” Michelle naively tells Josh. The fact that there’s more than that going on is not lost on the hidden cameras. (Don’t read too much into the brother rivalry just because the filmmaker’s older sibling is actor-director James Franco.) And though Brie, best known for exemplary work on Mad Men, Community and G.L.O.W., married her director in 2017, there are no real-life parallels to compare with the scary, twisted fun and emotional obstacle courses that Franco prepares for them on screen.
You can feel the tension from the moment the foursome arrives for their wild weekend of sex, drugs and digital recording. Josh has violated the no-pets rule by bringing along his French bulldog Reggie. This is bound to piss off caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss), the snoopy brother of the unseen property owner. Everyone seems irritated by Taylor, especially Mina (last name: Mohammadi) — she believes her Middle-Eastern roots got her turned down for the rental even though she called to book the place before Charlie. When Josh and Michelle turn in early to prepare for a morning hike, leaving Charlie and Mina to try out the hottub, you don’t need to be a stalker-flick aficianado to know that no good can come from that.
It doesn’t. No spoilers, except to say that waves crashing on jagged rocks are a mere prelude to the prime shocks. Over 88 vise-tightening minutes, The Rental never lets up on your nerves. But it’s the human betrayals that cast the longer shadows, the ones that keep you up nights.