Dave Franco is paranoid. And, as he told Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers, his paranoia reached its peak as he sat in the director’s chair for the first time, making The Rental—the story of two couples who vacation at an Oregon house for a weekend, only to find that they’re not alone. It’s a horror film that will instantly bring to mind classics in the genre—not terribly bloody but hella-suspenseful.
The sparse cast of characters includes Charlie (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), his wife Michelle (Franco’s wife, GLOW’s Alison Brie), Charlie’s brother Josh (Shameless vet Jeremy Allen White) and Josh’s girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand). Charlie and Mina also work together, which adds another layer.
The house, which is almost a character itself, is a gorgeous, sprawling estate perched on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. When the two couples arrive, they meet caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss), who is either racist, ignorant, or lacking in any self-awareness (or some combination of the three). It takes no time at all for the pieces to start falling into place, but Franco (working from his own script, co-written with Joe Swanberg) bravely takes his time to get where we need to be.
The first 50 minutes of the film are all set-up and character development (and foreshadowing and clues, which are obvious in hindsight). Business partners Charlie and Mina may or may not have more on their mind than quality time with their significant others, Josh’s decision to bring along his dog to a “no pets” retreat is sure to cause an issue, and then someone breaks out a little bag of Ecstasy, so—it’s clear this thing isn’t going to end well. And that’s all before Mina discovers a tiny surveillance camera in the shower—a plot device that is a direct manifestation of Franco’s aforementioned paranoia, particularly regarding the prevalence of cameras in contemporary society.
Mentioning anything else would take us into spoiler territory, but suffice to say Franco and his team (including cinematographer Christian Sprenger and editor Kyle Reiter) do a bang-up job setting the mood and making the hairs on the back of your neck spring to attention. The Rental is a tight little white-knuckle ride that’s as economical (88 minutes) as it is scary. The small cast, the singular location, and the thoughtful set-up all combine to make the film an intimate, relatable feature.
Speaking of the cast, to a person (including Brie, who absolutely kills it—no pun intended) they turn in quiet, deliberate performances in understated roles. And the film itself is a slow-burn thing of beauty, percolating for exactly as long as it takes to get us where we eventually need to be. Heck, even when Franco reaches the end, he really doesn’t; the closing credits are a mini-movie unto themselves, wrapping things up (or do they?) in spectacular fashion.
Whether or not Franco is justified in his Big Brother-esque paranoia is for him to decide, but with his first stint as a feature film director solidly under his belt, there’s at least one thing he doesn’t need to fear any longer. He’s proven he has the goods behind the camera. The Rental does for Airbnb what Friday the 13th did for summer camp.