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There is an unintentional cruelty in the timing of The Rental, the new horror thriller directed and co-written by Dave Franco: In a world where travel is significantly curtailed, this is a film about how you cannot trust the owner of your Airbnb. Current circumstances create an additional sting to the film, and that is a good thing, because there is not much else going for it. Franco is a competent enough filmmaker, except his talents are in service of broad characters and predictability.
A neat inversion defines the opening scene, one that carries through the rest of the film. Charlie (Dan Stevens) is browsing vacation listings online with Mina (Sheila Vand) looking over his shoulder. They are friendly, even intimate, as she rests her arms on his shoulders. But the scene unfolds further, and the viewer realizes Charlie and Mina are not an item. They are friends and business partners, plus Mina is dating Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Along with Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie), the two couples head for a handsome rental home, complete with a cliffside view and a Jacuzzi. The trouble starts almost immediately: Mina thinks the property manager Taylor (Toby Huss) is racist, and no one can agree on what to do once they get there. Soon passive aggressive behavior turns into full-on hostility, and that is before Mina discovers the hidden cameras.
Franco and his co-writer, the filmmaker Joe Swanberg, are deliberate in how they conflate the relationship drama with the genre requirements. We already see the chemistry between Mina and Charlie, so that has to resolve in a plausible way that ultimately hurts everyone involved. There is a long stretch in The Rental when these four find themselves in a situation they could not have anticipated, and have no good options left.
All this should be exciting, and yet there is little connection to the characters beyond the lazy ways we are meant to identify with them. No one is especially likable or clever, so once the climax kicks into gear and their lives are in danger, it becomes clear that the relationship drama has more suspense than a killer lurking in the shadows. Franco internalizes the formal requirements of the horror genre, without fully understanding what those tropes are in service of.
The actors do well with what they’ve got. Between The Guest and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Stevens has shown he can easily balance between charm and menace. There is some of that here, except the dialogue is rote, so that denies him nuance. Brie and White are given even less, since they’re the “others” in the thinly-veiled tension between Charlie and Mina (the only subtle scene is where they are trying not to flirt, and failing at it). Franco has the right look for the film, with a palette of dark colors and pools of hopeless, wan light. In terms of its eventual payoff, The Rental is somewhat similar to The Invitation, a 2016 thriller directed by Karyn Kusama. The difference is those characters express anxieties and values beyond horny and annoyed.
People were afraid to go back in the water after they saw Jaws. People were afraid of their own homes after they saw Poltergeist. In The Rental, Dave Franco is hoping that reasonably affluent 30-somethings will be afraid to go for a weekend at a country Airbnb. I am his target demographic, and having seen the film, I don’t have misgivings about a future weekend trip to an Airbnb in West Virginia. At least his movie is too forgettable, too self-satisfied to provoke that kind of reaction.
The Rental is available Friday on VOD.