The actor’s debut film is a horror story that, beyond a premise more typical of independent cinema, soon falls back on the most classic conventions of the genre, with barely acceptable results.
It is impossible, seeing THE RENTAL, not thinking about how the idea came to its director and co-writer, Dave Franco. I have every impression that he hired a luxurious house to spend a weekend through some app like AirBnB and then he had some nightmares. Or, that he went to a house rented that way and that, standing there looking at the sea, it occurred to him what horrible things could happen to him in such a place. In an interview, the actor also confirmed something quite similar later: one day he woke up in a hotel and his sheets were all bloody.
James’s brother’s first feature film as director is a film that seems to seek some kind of original angle for a type of story told a thousand times, but halfway there he decides to abandon those attempts and fully indulge in what is expected of a plot suspense about two couples who are going to spend a weekend in a beautiful and remote house in front of the sea where strange things begin to happen.
Co-written with Joe Swanberg – a figure in North American independent cinema – and co-produced by Sean Durkin, another director of disturbing films such as MARTHA MACY MAY MARLENE and the “imminent” THE NEST, the film tells the story of Charlie, Michelle, Josh and Mina over the course of about 48 hours. The very professional and “serious” Charlie (Dan Stevens, from DOWNTON ABBEY and LEGION) has been in a relationship with Michelle (Alison Brie, from GLOW and MAD MEN) while his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White, from SHAMELESS), who spent a few years in jail and seems much less responsible than Charlie, only recently began dating Mina (Sheila Vandt, the girl from A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT), whom he met because she is his brother’s co-worker.
The four of them rent a beautiful house with an ocean view and decide to spend a weekend there. Everything seems fine, except for a couple of details. Josh had no better idea than to take his dog even though animals were not accepted in the place and the man who rented the house not only looks a bit unpleasant and rude, but before taking Charlie’s reservation he had told him no to Mina. And she thinks that it is because of her surname of Arabic origin and from the outset she blames it on her face.
THE RENTAL It is not a fantastic film but it is a mixture of psychological drama with horror film, like so many films about groups of urban bourgeois who travel to a beautiful place but far from civilization to run into unexpected things there, plot very expensive to the cinema of suspense and horror of the ’70s, of THE STRAW DOGS a THE TEXAS MASSACRE, going by VIOLENCE IS IN USm among many other titles.
The first half of the film is dedicated to following the relationships between the members of this group. And the biggest problem there seems to be the obvious sexual interest and tension that exists between Charlie and Mina. It is clear that as soon as something happens there – as the rules of the horror genre dictate – someone will have to come to “put order”. In just 85 minutes THE RENTAL it goes from being a bourgeois drama to a suspense film to conclude in one closer to terror. The transition between one and the other works more or less well, but it does not have enough intrigue to generate more tension than a much more conventional horror story could offer. Franco’s film seems to be presented as an independent, different genre film, but in the long run it moves almost completely within the coordinates of the conventional.
Even so, for a good part it works. Their conflict is simple but well narrated and puts the viewer in the tension that someone who is in a rented house in the middle of nowhere can feel and begins to see strange things happen. It is not convenient to tell much more, but from then on the film takes many more elements from the cinema slasher more prototypical. In fact, when he pretends about the ending to be “original” again – proposing a twist on the identity of the murderer – it is too late. At that point the viewer wants clearer and more forceful resolutions.
No, the smallest Franco did not make a movie of “Author’s horror” of those that are celebrated and promoted today. Its cast and characters may come from more independent cinema, but once the conflict is raised, beyond the odd little surprise, the film is not much more than a classic “for himself.” Entertaining, perhaps, but it doesn’t live up to what its intriguing first act promises.
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Online premieres: review of “The Rental”, by Dave Franco (Amazon Prime)