A fear of strangers is definitely an aspect of many people’s lives. Who are we to know, when in public, what so-and-so is thinking or even capable of? It’s a fear that in this COVID-19 age has only grown even stronger, which only further helps a film like The Rental, which evolves entirely around the growing friction between Americans’ eroding trust in each other. And a lot of that comes together with the the use of a service like Airbnb, an app that wholly forces you to depend upon the kindness of complete strangers. It seems like a recipe for some sort of disaster, and The Rental has less interest in reconciling that tension that it does in watching it boil over into a brutal reminder that you should probably just never leave your house.
Making his directorial debut, actor Dave Franco has said that The Rental was conceived out of his general discomfort in Airbnb rentals. We just accept that we’re spending time in someone else’s house — someone else who has a key and can come and go as they please. Franco took that general unease and (with the help of co-writer Joe Swanberg) turned it into The Rental, the story of two couples who feel on the verge of breakups in the near future … that is if they can survive the weekend. Overall, Franco and Swanberg’s script couldn’t be leaner. We open with Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), touchy-feely work partners who decide to celebrate the launch of their new start-up with a weekend trip towards the coast of the Pacific Northwest. What better way for these beautiful people to stress test the heaping sexual chemistry between them than by spending a few nights at a cliffside, ocean-view Airbnb with both of their actual significant others?
What’s even more complicated within this foursome is the fact that Mina’s boyfriend Josh (Jeremy Allen White) happens to be Charlie’s burnout of a younger brother, a Lyft driver with a gentle soul and a violent past. Josh, though, soon gravitates to Charlie’s reserved girlfriend Michelle (Alison Brie), whose relationship in on shakier ground than she might realize. Throw in a bag of ecstasy, a potentially racist Airbnb host (Toby Huss), and a French bulldog who isn’t allowed on the property and you’ve got enough trouble brewing even before you throw some homicidal maniac into the mix. Throughout, Franco turns all the screws with care. At first, with his wood shrouded POV shots, one might mistake this film for a homage to ’80s slashers, but, believe it or not, at times the film feels, in some ways, akin to Michael Haneke. Like Haneke, Franco with The Rental is interested in actual, physical horror compounding emotional devastation and destroyed domesticity. But that’s not saying that Franco isn’t still establishing his basic genre bonafides than trying to become the next horror star. Cinematographer Christian Sprenger’s camerawork is steely and patient, bringing to life the Oregon locations with foreboding evocation that never once endangers the film’s unfussy vibe, all while the cast fleshes out their characters without saddling them with more pathos than this eighty-nine-minute film has time to unpack.
Aside from the occasional jolt, The Rental eschews cheap jump-scares in favor of something more unsettling, as the distrust these people have in their Airbnb host increasingly begins to reflect the distrust they have in each other. And with possible partner swapping lingering in the air, it isn’t before long when hidden shower cameras get discovered. It’s creepy enough that the host has access to the house while guests are staying there, but this is obviously a violation of a very different sort. It also doesn’t help, though, that the cameras might have caught some secrets. It’s from there where the actors keep the tensions palpable, but it also helps that Franco transitions from character study to full-blown slasher with loads of confidence and absolutely zero mercy, the first-time director serving up a sudden flurry of “look behind you!” moments that hit the spot even as they frustrate your interest in finding out who might be under the mask.
But The Rental doesn’t really care. From the queasy filtration of the first scene to the snuff film vibe of the closing credits, this movie is more interested in unblocking the everyday nightmares that lurk inside the gig economy than it is in creating a new iconic genre villain who you’d be able to recognize from the jump. The larger, ultimate reveal in The Rental somewhat feels like a let down for how little it has to do with the film’s premise or the app-based anxieties it triggers, yet it still leaves you with an existential, unnerving sense that will only make you want to stay in quarantine more. Attempting a lean intersecting of tone and genre, The Rental is a horror film of modern anxieties captured with an assured control; one of evocative moods that freely embraces the terror of foggy shadows and hazy mysteries.
The Rental is available on VOD