We live in the age of surveillance complacency. We surrender our luggage and bodies to the TSA to fly. We allow virtual personal assistants to listen in on our homes, and social media apps to comb our keystrokes to target ads. We offer others to surveil us by posting our locations, selfies, and various personal insights online. Sci-fi has long warned us of Big Brother, and we’ve responded with a shrug and duck lips. But what happens when that surveillance turns from violation to violence? That is the scary story that lurks at the center of Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental.
Scripted by Franco and Joe Swanberg, The Rental follows a foursome on a terrifying weekend getaway in a cliffside vacation house. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his business partner Mina (Sheila Vand) have been working tirelessly, and are desperate for a break. This is thrilling news for Charlie’s bubbly wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), brother to Charlie and boyfriend to Mina. However, things get off to a rocky start when the house’s caretaker (Toby Huss) says some sketchy things that put Mina on edge. There’s also tension within the couples. The co-workers are so so close that it makes their partners feel a bit left out in the cold. Then, Mina discovers a camera in the shower. As the group one-by-one learns someone is watching, the weekend derails into a nightmare. Who is watching? Why? What will they do next?
With POV shots from its mysterious watcher and the group under attack in a traditionally relaxing locale, The Rental has elements of a slasher flick. However, Franco’s focus is chiefly on the drama of the central foursome’s fraught bonds. He’s brought together an incredible cast, some of whom have such established range that it’s hard to predict where their arcs will lead.
Stevens broke through playing a dreamboat gentleman on Downton Abbey, then abandoned the wildly popular British series to dive into horror films (The Guest, Apostle), outrageous comedies (Colossal, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga), and wild TV shows (Legion, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts). So when he pops up playing a seemingly mild-mannered married man, we can’t assume all is what it seems. As for Brie, she’s played a navel-gazing journalist (BoJack Horseman), a reckless wrestler (GLOW), and an array of sharp-tongued women. So when she swans in with a big smile and a baggie of party drugs, where might that lead?
Shamless’s White plays more to his niche, as Josh is a screw-up with a big heart and checkered past. In this way, the context of this casting is like a red flag, warning that Josh will make a misstep that will cost them all. Likewise, Huss brings a scraggly threat as the sneering caretaker. These cues give us a comforting confirmation that we know where this story will go. But I doubt you do.
The entire incredible ensemble masterfully offers grounded yet gripping performances that dance from casual intimacy to aching vulnerability then shattering terror. Yet the standout of the group is Vand. Perhaps best known as the eponymous monster of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Sheila Vand carries an enviable confidence. Her Mina is no pushover, calling out the creepy caretaker and making clear her concerns when he turns up unannounced. She is more aware of the dangers of the world around them than her white friends, suggesting she’s better prepared to handle them. Vand brings an enchanting intensity to the role, which makes us root for Mina from her first biting remark. By giving us fleshed out characters before the horrors hit, Franco invests us in the survival of each. But Vand’s natural presence makes us trust that she’ll see us through whatever hell is coming.
A cast like this demands a smart script that doesn’t rely on tired tropes of garish gore and lazy jump scares. Franco does right by them. I yelped repeatedly through the film’s climax, and not for splashes of viscera or playful psych-outs that wink at the audience. I yelped because in a split second, Franco tips a moment of common frustration into life-shattering terror. It’s the flash of motion in the distance. A long take that lulls you into a sense of security only to snatch it away just when you think it’s safe to breathe easy. I won’t call this “elevated horror” because that’s an arrogant and ignorant term that suggests the horror genre is inherently sh*t, thus its gems need a signal that makes clear they’re not really horror movies.
This is a horror movie and a damn fine one.
Yet The Rental is already proving polarizing among horror fans.
Admittedly, Franco takes risks that don’t offer the standard thrills of a slasher. However, I found his vision of horror exciting, thought-provoking, and darkly evocative in a way that haunted me deeply. I’m the kind of person who binges horror movies on the regular without ever disturbing my sleep. Yet The Rental gave me nightmares, not only because of what it chooses to show but also for what it leaves unseen.
The Rental is in select drive-ins, theaters, and On Demand on July 24.
Header Image Source: IFC Films