This movie was really ramping up to have it all: it’s Dave Franco’s directorial debut, it’s co-written by horror and comedy veteran Joe Swanberg, and it has a killer (no pun intended) cast. But somehow, it just falls short of amazing. The best way I can describe it is that it’s a really phenomenal thriller that changes its mind about halfway through and becomes a mediocre slasher. All I have to say is, thank god The Rental is only 90 minutes long.
It may be messy, but The Rental does have its moments. You can see Joe Swanberg’s humor throughout the first two acts, with bit after bit from the bro puns to a goofy buttcrack joke. But, Swanberg isn’t just known for his comedies. He directed a segment in V/H/S and he’s starred in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next and Ti West’s The Sacrament. His horror chops are evident in the first two acts, but it just falls flat in the third. Let me explain.
It starts out as a group of friends plan a trip to an expensive AirBNB near the beach. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (Alison Brie) are the boring safe couple, while Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who is Charlie’s brother, and Mina (Sheila Vand), who is Charlie’s business partner, are the more reckless ones—Josh even brings his dog Reggie to the AirBNB when the listing clearly states no pets allowed. Charlie and Michelle are the ones who actually book the AirBNB, because when Mina tried to book it, she was denied, assumedly because of her Muslim-sounding last name. Right off the bat, it’s looking like this thing is going to be about race issues. It seems like a really fascinating premise for a thriller, along the veins of a Get Out. If only we’d kept with that angle.
Frustratingly, in an interview, director Dave Franco alludes to his intentions of such implications:
The country is as divided as it’s ever been, and no one trusts each other, yet we trust staying in the home of a stranger simply because of a few positive reviews online.
We understand your intentions, Mr. Franco, but it gets muddled. If the last bit of the film were a little more focused on said intentions, this could have been a phenomenal debut. I really wanted to love this film for everything it could’ve been.
Back to the story. The next bit really sets the stage for the tension a proper thriller should have. They meet the older renter Taylor (Toby Huss) at the AirBNB, which his brother owns (you’d think this would come into play somewhere), to exchange keys, and there’s already a tense exchange between him and Mina. Again, really gearing you up for a thriller about race. And that leads you to thinking that maybe there’s a tie-in with 9/11 because that’s what sparked anti-Muslim sentiments in America for the last almost 20 years. Maybe the scary homeowner Taylor had a son who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Insert gratuitous nice-guy “maybe he’s not so bad after all” moment for Taylor.
Here’s where things get spiced up. That night, the group (sans Michelle) decide to do molly together. Josh passes out, and Charlie and Mina are left alone together in the hot tub. Not surprisingly at all, the two hook-up and bring their steamy sex scene to the shower. The next day, they obviously pretend like nothing happened, and Michelle and Josh, being the only two who aren’t massively hungover, go off for a hike. Josh tells Michelle about Charlie’s cheating streak, and we see that the two are being stalked in the woods. So now on top of the racist renter, we have a cheating element to add tension, and a potential stalker. It’s becoming less clear where Franco is going with this story, but wait, there’s more!
Later, Mina is taking another shower (why???) when she notices a camera in the shower head. This is confirmation that we now officially have a stalker element. So now we’re thinking that Taylor is a racist stalker with an unknown M.O. Very cool and interesting direction. Can’t wait to see the payoff for this. Maybe this was supposed to be our hint that there’s a psycho killer on the loose. But based on everything else that happened so far, it was far from my mind. She points this out to Charlie, who immediately realizes that whoever is taping them has footage of their illicit hookup, so they can’t call the cops at the risk of ruining both of their relationships.
It’s such a ridiculous reason to avoid calling the cops that it’s funny, and with Joe Swanberg on the writing team for The Rental, I assume it’s intentional. Well done. And we finally have our tie-in for the cheating. At this point, we can guess that maybe there’s going to be a blackmail element against the Muslim girl, right? Racism, blackmail, and infidelity. It all makes sense now. The direction they’re going in should be clear. Or so you think.
Michelle gets high the next night when they lose the dog, Reggie. The rest of the group declines the drugs to help look for the dog. So, Michelle decides to hop in the hot tub, but she can’t get it to work and she phones Taylor. That’s right, now racist Taylor has a concrete reason to return to the home. Here comes the set-up, right?
What happens next changes the direction yet again, which at least keeps you on your toes. I want so badly to give Franco and Swanberg the benefit of the doubt. I’m such a huge fan of Swanberg so I’m really rooting for this movie to get it’s shit together. I’m excited to see what this all culminates to.
So Taylor pops by to fix the hot tub (and Michelle mimes…well, I’ll let you see that for yourself, it’s really funny and a shining moment for Alison Brie). This is when Mina decides to confront him about the cameras. We think that there’s about to be a hate crime happening because they’ve set up the tension between the two characters so well. She shows him the cameras and threatens to phone the police. He insists that he knows nothing of the cameras, and offers to call the police himself, taking Mina’s phone out of her hand. Sh*t’s starting to get really real. Mina’s boyfriend Josh, who’s outside still looking for his dog Reggie, hears the fight, rushes inside and starts beating Taylor into a pulp, knocking him unconscious. While the group is outside recuperating from the brawl, we see a black-gloved figure suffocate Taylor to death. Spooky, and reminiscent of a giallo. Nice nod, Franco. Obviously, the group goes to check on him and finds him dead. Now they have to deal with a dead body and the possibility of going to jail. More blackmail for whoever is behind these cameras.
So now you’re left thinking, who’s setting them up? Maybe it’s Taylor’s brother who owns the house, who’s the real racist. Up until (and including) this point, I am fully behind this film. Dave Franco is crafting a convoluted but interesting thriller that really keeps the audience guessing. It’s unclear what exactly The Rental will turn out to be, but we’re excited for it. Then, out of nowhere, a serial killer pops up, and the film makes a hard left turn into a slasher flick. Say it with me: excuse me, what???
You’re probably asking yourself how this thriller could possibly become a slasher. Sure, there’s the bit about the stalking in the woods, and the surveillance cameras in the house, but when you add those along with crazy racist Taylor and the blackmail aspect, it seems unlikely. There’s no transition from thriller to slasher whatsoever. Suddenly there’s a killer in the house for no reason at all, even though at first it seemed like he was there to set the gang up for murder. All the set up they’ve done is for naught. There’s no payoff for the racism or the blackmail. It’s just about the stalking, the least interesting element of all of this.
Sure you could argue that the racism was a red herring. But when it’s the most compelling aspect of your story, why would you throw it away like that? If anything should have been a red herring, it should have been the cameras and the stalking. But even then, it just doesn’t need a red herring. All of this could have been explained away as an elaborate scheme to set Mina up for the murder of Taylor.
There’s an amazing set up for a brilliant thriller movie about race, stalking, accidental murder, even judging a book by its cover. Any of those would have been excellent directions to go in. I would have laughed so hard if Taylor showed up miraculously not dead and had a perfectly good explanation for all of it—it was all a huge misunderstanding and the cameras were there to catch the maid stealing or something. Just throwing out ideas.
In the end, The Rental had such huge potential for a really fascinating thriller. But then sh*t got weird and did a major shift from intense thriller with a potential relevant social message into a typical cabin-in-the-woods slasher. They could not have picked a more boring route to go with this film in the third act. Overall, it had a great start and a disappointing ending. It’s worth the watch if you’re a fan of the actors, especially Sheila Vand. Dave Franco’s directorial debut was a step in the right direction, and if he learns anything from this film, he could become a big name in the thriller genre.