The Rental: Unfurnished, by David Bax
On the whole, the turn toward the “slow burn” model in independent horror cinema over the last fifteen years or so is a good thing. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it lets us luxuriate in the sinister mood. In Wolf Creek, the tension only adds to the sadism. But Dave Franco, in his feature directorial debut The Rental, seems to have overlooked the lesson that those long periods between gore and violence need to be instilled with something of interest. “Slow burn” doesn’t mean “nothing much happens for the first hour.”
To be fair, it’s not exactly true that “nothing” happens in The Rental‘s early going. It’s just that Franco, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Swanberg, creates superficial character sketches and then lets them behave in exactly the way you’d expect. The level of character development is so basic that Dan Stevens’ Charlie refers to Jeremy Allen White’s Josh as, “My brother, who…” and then gives us all the backstory we need. Charlie and Josh are accompanied on a weekend AirBnB trip by Charlie’s wife, Michelle (Alison Brie) and Josh’s girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand), who is also Charlie’s business partner.
Suspicious goings-on at the woodsy getaway–without giving away too much, the fears of any vacation renter come true–boil over the already simmering insecurities of the ensemble. The most sympathetic victim here is Josh’s adorable French bulldog, Reggie. Dogs are always in danger in horror movies but, in this case, Josh is simply so terrible and inattentive a dog owner that you’ll worry for the pooch’s fate even before things get hairy.
Cinematographer Christian Sprenger has done excellent work on series like Atlanta and GLOW. In fact, he does great work here as well, in the hazy interplay between diffuse light sources like moonbeams and brake lights. We can probably chalk the blandly desaturated opening chapters up to Franco’s “take me seriously” first time director vibes, then.
Okay, enough about how boring The Rental is until the final act. Let’s talk about how much it improves by the end! The various and concurrent situational perils in which the four characters find themselves may be familiar in their own right but Franco keeps the tension crackling and the action moving forward. With scenes unfolding everywhere from the driveway to the basement to the upstairs bathroom simultaneously, The Rental becomes superlatively engaging.
Still, it’s all a bit too fleeting in the end since everything happens to such hollow characters. Their conversations about their interrelationships–how they want to “challenge and inspire” each other while they “learn and support” as they “occupy the same space”–sound like empty armchair psychology. When one of them finally confronts another with the accusatory question, “Who are you?”, you may find yourself thinking, “Yeah, good question.”