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Monday, July 20, 2020

[Review] ‘The Rental’ Offers a Mild Vacation Getaway Devoid of Thrills

With the popularity of online vacation rental companies like Airbnb, it’s a little surprising that very few horror movies have taken inspiration from it. Though it’s often cheaper than booking a stay at more regulated hotels, renting through the likes of Airbnb can be a grab bag; you’re entirely at the mercy of the unknown stranger who owns the property. There’s a lot of trust required, and so much could potentially go wrong. It makes for fertile ground when developing a horror movie. In The Rental, Dave Franco makes his directorial debut to explore the predatory horrors of which renters leave themselves exposed. It’s a solid concept in theory, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired with this rental.

The setup is simple; two couples book a gorgeous beachside home for a weekend getaway and eventually realize there’s something very sinister with the place. Married couple Michelle (Allison Brie) and Charlie (Dan Stevens) plan a weekend trip with Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand). They’re celebrating the career successes of work partners Charlie and Mina, but they’re also there to unwind, relax in nature, and get wasted. Straight away, their rental host Taylor (Toby Huss) makes them uneasy. Mina suspects he’s racist, and he’s off-putting in his demeanor. The further into the weekend it gets, the stranger things become; secrets are exposed, hidden cameras are discovered, and their very lives are at risk.

In a script he co-wrote with producer Joe Swanberg, Franco spends a hefty amount of the runtime getting the viewer acquainted with the foursome and establishing group dynamics. Mina’s the most cautious of the bunch, immediately put on edge by her interactions with Taylor. Michelle and Josh the warm, trusting ones of the group, and Charlie the selfish yet charming one. The more we get to know this group, though, the less it seems to be about engendering these characters to the audience and more about moving these pieces around on the game board. Relationships get extra complicated, and that wholly shapes their actions when things get dicey for the worse. When the thriller portion of the film finally sets in, pivotal character choices have most of our foursome go from misbehaving to behaving incredibly stupid.

As for those thriller elements, well, there’s no real thrills. It’s a generic idea devoid of any real suspense or tension. So much effort is spent building up the core characters that everything else lacks personality, including the villain. Often in horror, less is more, but there’s so little to grab hold of here that there’s a lack of danger. It doesn’t help that Franco’s inexperience occasionally shows in moments of violence; one character’s brutal demise is undermined a little by the shot lingering too long and showing too much of the fake dummy as a result. There’s a definite atmospheric vibe Franco is attempting to achieve here, but it falls flat thanks to the sheer amount of energy given over to the melodrama among the foursome.

The cast, however, brings it. Stevens is always welcome to play in the genre space any time, and he manages to make an unsavory character engaging. Brie has less to do as Michelle, but she infuses the sweet character with her natural sympathetic charisma. It’s Vand that’s the standout; her deeply flawed yet strong character makes for a refreshing twist to final girl potential. When the thriller elements fall entirely flat, these actors and the characters penned by Franco and Swanberg make for an interesting mumblecore experiment. The gorgeous landscape and Christian Sprenger’s beautiful cinematography elevate this otherwise bland horror movie, too.

If you’re a fan of character-focused stories, you might be able to hop on this movie’s wavelength. That’s where The Rental succeeds most. If you’re looking for something that fully explores potential dangers of private vacation rentals, well, there’s a high probability you’ll be disappointed. As a director, Franco hasn’t yet figured out how to draw out the tension in scenes and waits far too late into the runtime to bring in the horror. It’s a creepy idea that makes you think twice about where you choose your next place to stay, but how it plays out leaves a lot to be desired.

The Rental opens at Drive-ins and on VOD July 24, 2020.


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