A promising setup falls short of its potential
An Airbnb rental is a pretty solid horror setup. Over the years, we’ve seen countless real-life nightmares play out in the news. Also, stranded-in-a-cabin tropes tend to be a lot of fun. So it’s easy to get on board with the premise of The Rental, especially given the front-loaded tension between its two couples.
Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are business partners who seem very close, but Mina’s actually dating Charlie’s less-ambitious brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), while Charlie’s married (Alison Brie plays his wife, Michelle).
The foursome plans a weekend away at a ridiculously posh seaside house that’s too expensive, but what the hell. (Remember when people had extra money? And could be in close quarters with friends?)
THE RENTAL ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Dave Franco
Written by: Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg
Starring: Dan Stevens, Allison Brie, Jeremy Allen White, Sheila Vand
Running time: 89 min.
Right away, things feel off. Mina, whose looks and last name signal that she’s Middle Eastern, tries to book the house but gets denied, while Charlie’s request is subsequently accepted. When Mina brings this up with the caretaker, Taylor (Toby Huss), he makes a couple of throwaway comments that seem just racist-adjacent enough to make everyone uncomfortable.
The creative duo of screenwriters Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) and Dave Franco, who’s also making his directorial debut, works well at first. Swanberg excels at low-key relationship dialogue that keeps it real-ish, and watching the passive-aggressive dynamics at play is entertaining. Everyone except Michelle casually takes ecstasy the first night, and wouldn’t you know it? Charlie and Mina end up the last ones awake in the hot tub together, paving the way for an excruciatingly awkward next morning.
Disappointing dead ends
The horror angle is where The Rental is less of a success. A low hum of a soundtrack keeps you twitchy as Mina and Charlie discover the house is full of secret cameras. A confrontation with Taylor goes predictably awry, and Josh’s smuggled-in French bulldog goes missing. (Never bring a dog to a horror plot!) The bad vibes between the couples seem to breed mishaps, and pretty soon someone is running through the mist at the edge of a seaside cliff.
As the action ramps up, Franco’s direction becomes less assured. The connection between the emotional tension and the stranger-danger starts to fray, splitting the film into two threads that don’t always work together.
There’s a blatant ’80s-slasher shout-out in the last act, and my biggest complaint about The Rental is that it completely whiffs on seeing it through. I was left not really knowing what happened, and not really caring all that much, beyond resolving that I will right the wrong of never having seen the terrific Vand in 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
For me, the idea of getting away on an actual vacation still seems worth risking a psycho stalker or two.