There’s a terrific ambiguous tension at the heart of the creepy, home-invasion-style Airbnb vacation thriller, “The Rental” that always keeps the movie on an engagingly sinister edge. Whether it’s the unrequited romantic anxiety that emanates from would-be best friends, the vague racism and misogyny conspicuously aimed at one of the female Iranian characters, or the imprecise red neck-y vibes and Trump-ian air around the main hayseed caretaker characters, everything seems just slightly off. Actor turned director Dave Franco delivers the goods in his unsettling directorial debut, in this regard— a seemingly morally ambiguous thriller that doesn’t tell you whether you should be rooting for the innocents or the bad guys and seems to have things on its mind to say about trust, privilege, infidelity, privacy, surveillance and more.
In “The Rental,” two couples retreat to a picturesque lodge shadowed by forest trees and sheltered by ocean surf. But something’s amiss, of course. When they arrive, red flags surface along the windy, misty coast. Someone’s spying on from the distance, or is that just an unnerving Stanley Kubrick-esque omnipresence at work and a filmmaker that wants to trigger audience paranoia.
Almost immediately, Franco and his actors notch up the tension. Dan Stevens stars as Charlie, a successful graphic design solopreneur who is treating his girlfriend, Michelle (Alison Brie), his business partner and best friend, Mina (Sheila Vand), along with his troubled brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White)—who happens to be dating Mina—to a vacation. We first meet the quartet waiting for the property manager (Toby Huss) to show up and meanwhile, Mina reminds everyone that this same person denied her request to stay at the house—a brown person, a woman—and yet immediately accepted Charlie’s request—a white guy—when they were trying to secure a place for their weekend getaway. He suddenly arrives, out of nowhere, with a set of keys, an ominous glare, and an air of hostility. “What are you doing with these brothers?” he asks Mina, in a suspiciously loaded, but unclear fashion—is he referencing her denied vacation request or something more bigoted? It’s vaguely racist and everyone wants to interrogate its meaning, but Charlie, not wanting to create a confrontation before their stay even starts, quickly deflects and diffuses the situation so it can just simmer unchecked.
This smoldering is where the movie works best. Franco is great with a methodical and patient buildup, and the skilled actors present a façade of happiness that soon begins to crack. Unfortunately, the film starts to reveal its foundational issues right around the same time. “The Rental” points to deeper depths soon to be revealed—just like the secrets these characters harbor that surface later—but they never really arrive. That said, there’s a complexity in all the character dynamics. Stevens and Charlie make us believe in their character’s fraught sibling history, and the complicated feelings Charlie has for his partner, Mina. Josh, disturbed by Charlie and Mina’s touchy-feely friendship, turns a blind eye to their affections, yet knows something isn’t right.
Soon, he’s got much bigger worries to deal with rather than whether his older brother is secretly in love with his girlfriend. The weather turns cold; a hidden door is found under the house; the camera, nestled in a bush, zooms in on the couples at night like a predator planning its next move. Handled with a quiet foreboding, these unnerving incidents build a moody atmosphere and prove Franco an astute horror aficionado. Similar to his brother James Franco’s early stabs at directing (“Child of God”), Dave takes perverse pleasure in dropping troubled, even unlikable characters, into a Gothic setting where escape is impossible. Both are gifted at torturing those who deserve it, going places other directors wouldn’t dare (reportedly, “The Rental” was originally rated NC-17).
Unfortunately, just as Franco seems to be weaving his spell to tell a rich and layered tale of disquieting voyeurism, secrets and lies, and perhaps moral punishments for all the transgressions made, he practically abandons all that good texture and the film turns into a strangely generic thriller. There’s peeping tom like pleasures seen from afar—Charlie and Mina exchanging steamy glances in the hot tub, Josh whispering secrets to Michelle. This sense of intimacy, and the guilty thrills of observing it, recalls Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photographer spying on his neighbors with binoculars in “Rear Window,” but Franco favors brutality over Hitchcock’ insights into troubled souls. In the final act, bones are crunched, necks are sliced and characters split up. Viewers will find most of the scares familiar, and the finale feels like a let-down and a failure to deliver on a promising set up.
Co-written by Joe Swanberg, “The Rental” hints at a better movie, one where the privileged protagonists are perhaps more of a repulsive bunch, have darker secrets with more emotional stakes, and might even deserve some of the penances for their grave sins. Instead, the ambiguity that made “The Rental” so potent at first works against it and it seems like the movie has actually little to say at all. No one’s quite despicable, the villain is vague—and this might be the point, but it all lands with an unsatisfying thud. When you’re bashing in skulls of innocents that are annoying, but not exactly bad people per se, intention, motivation, and justification need some kind of fulfillment for the viewer. Instead, it’s unclear who to care about in “The Rental” and you might get so frustrated, you root for the faceless bad guy who seems to have little rhyme or reason for what he does. Those looking for a well-crafted suspense film, Franco offers that for 2/3rds of his picture. Those who care about a point, a meaning and concluding statement to the thesis to an intriguing setup, however, will find themselves darting through the forest, frantically, desperately, hopelessly, searching for a way out. [C+]