In the new thriller, The Rental, the B's in Airbnb stand for “beware.” It’s actually surprising that this is the first horror film to tackle online rentals—those places where we blithely show up to a stranger's house, make ourselves completely at home, and barely think twice about the possible danger. Heck, I can see this thing turning into a series: The Uber. The Tinder. The Grubhub Guy. The list could go on.
This one is pretty nifty, as such things go, especially if you are partial to the psychological portion of psychological thrillers.
Here’s the set up: Two couples head to a fully appointed remote vacation house, conveniently located at the top of a perilous cliff. The couples have a complicated back story: Charlie (Dan Stevens) has just closed a big deal with his creative business partner Mina (Sheila Vand), and they look awfully cozy together.
Indeed, when the film first starts, Charlie and Mina are draped all over each other at the office, giggling and checking out the rental property on the computer. So it’s a shock when Charlie’s ne’er-do-well younger brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), shows up and kisses Mina hello. While Josh and Mina are just dating, Charlie actually has a wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), at home. The four of them are going to rent the house together—what could possibly go wrong?
On top of the clear potential for infidelity, there are other intriguing dynamics at play—and the screenplay, co-written by director Dave Franco and mumblecore king Joe Swanberg, lays them out quite efficiently.
Josh is a bit of a screw-up (he was briefly in jail for assaulting a guy) and he doesn’t feel he’s worthy of his high-achieving girlfriend. Meanwhile, Charlie loves his kid brother, but judges him, too. There’s a wonderfully telling scene where Charlie gives Josh grief for thinking that cavemen and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time. Meanwhile, the slightly straight-laced but chipper Michelle already has reason to be suspicious of her husband—not only did cheat on his previous girlfriend to be with her, but Josh innocently blurts out that he cheated on another girlfriend before that.
When they show up at the house (and great job location scouts, the house is as menacing as it is gorgeous) the guy who hands over the keys (Toby Huss) seems slightly off to them. For one thing, he’s already proven himself to be a possible racist (he turned down a rental application from Mina, who is Muslim, before accepting Charlie’s). Also, he makes a highly inappropriate crack about city slickers who own telescopes being peeping Toms. Then again, the judgment goes both ways: The yuppie renters can’t believe that the sophisticated house belongs to this hick in a pickup truck. (He explains that it belongs to his brother.)
The film takes its sweet time establishing the passive aggressive tensions in the relationships before Charlie and Mina notice that there are secret cameras installed the showers. They can’t call the cops, for reasons I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say, The Rental is a genre mashup between Sex, Lies and Videotape and a slasher film.
This is a promising debut from actor Franco. He cast the film with real actors and gave them lots of juicy material to chew on. But he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. The film is a pleasure because of its lack of ambition, you could say. It’s like a comfy but no-frills Airbnb that has really good beer in the fridge.
The Rental is available to rent on VOD.