There are a couple of movies going on in The Rental, both of them starring people that, as both a moviegoer and a person, I really don’t wanna deal with right now.
It starts off by introducing two people, Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), looking at a cliffside rental property online. At first, you’re led to believe they’re a couple. But when another guy steps into the scene, lays a big, wet one on Mina and calls Charlie “bro,” it’s revealed that they’re actually co-workers. That guy is Josh (Jeremy Allen White), the little brother of Charlie, who also thinks he’s way too much of a ne’er-do-well for his work wife. As Charlie tells his actual partner Michelle (Alison Brie) later that evening in bed, he’s a proverbial screw-up and she’s “the total package.”
Right out the gate, it’s established that even though Charlie and Mina aren’t boning, there are definitely some romantic feelings going on there. And you know all of that will be brought into the light when they go on a weekend getaway together at the aforementioned property.
Needless to say, while Michelle and Josh are both asleep, Charlie and Mina predictably get to doing what they shouldn’t be doing (under the influence of MDMA) and they try their best to hide it from their respective partners the next day. Little do they know they’re all being watched by someone — not only from afar, but through video surveillance cameras hidden all over the place (including the shower, where Charlie and Mina get all wet and sloppy).
The Rental began to give me one of those front-and-center-of-the-head migraines as this foursome makes one stupid decision after another, practically wrecking their lives and relationships even before a crazed, masked stalker appears with tools and wreaks havoc on these fools. And lemme just say a couple words about this cat, who has got to be one of the most extra killers I’ve ever seen in a slasher movie: It’s not enough that this freak is watching them, waiting for the right moment to strike. But before that, he also works at dismantling these couples’ relationships, making them all frightened, confused and exposed even before he shows up.
In his first time behind the lens, director Dave Franco (yes, James’s cute-ass little brother and Alison’s husband) basically merges two genres that are usually badly-written and get on my nerves — the cabin-in-the-woods thriller and the indie romantic drama — and makes one, big, badly-written movie that gets on my nerves.
While Franco appears to have the atmospheric stuff down (he gets with Atlanta / GLOW DP Christian Sprenger for the bleary/dreary cinematography), the story he worked out with Joe Swanberg and Mike Demski is unfocused, unwieldy, and achingly generic. It is funny seeing Swanberg involved with this — and not just because I never thought I’d see the notorious mumblecore filmmaker associated with a horror film — because it seems like a straight-faced version of Baghead (2008), the meta-thriller from fellow mumblecore gods Jay and Mark Duplass, where two guys and two girls (including a young Greta Gerwig) hang at a backwoods cabin and consistently scare the bejesus out of each other when they not trying to hook up with one another.
Unlike that film, this horror show for the Airbnb crowd isn’t in it for yuks and giggles. Franco wants us to feel the dread along with the main characters, as their brief vacay turns into a nightmare. The problem is, I didn’t care much about any of these people. It’s not the actors’ faults; they aren’t exactly given the most well-rounded characters to work with. (Plus, they’re basically Gen-Y yuppie scum, so who wouldn’t wanna see them get theirs?) Even when Vand’s Mina reminds these privileged white folk that racial profiling is a common occurrence for woman of Middle Eastern descent like her — this especially comes into play when they meet the house’s racist, sketchy caretaker (Toby Huss, of course) — the whole issue is handled in an awkward, flimsy manner. It’s like Franco and company threw in the subject of racism at the last minute because, you know, things have gotten really racist around here lately.
With the clumsy, tedious way Franco executes this supposedly cold-blooded chiller for our paranoid, pessimistic, post-modern times, I’m not that psyched about the “elevated” rom-com he and his old lady wrote and are planning to make next.
“The Rental” is out Friday at drive-ins and on demand.