The Rental is a serviceable if predictable thriller, but immediately situates Dave as the better director of the Franco brothers.
Dave Franco must have taken a look at the expansive, eccentric filmography of older brother James and thought: if he can do it, so can I. As a director, James Franco has tackled both pretentious, avant-garde provocations and pretentious literary adaptations. In fact, he seems to have made it a personal mission to undo the notion of the unfilmable novel, mostly of the Faulkner variety. For his directorial debut, Dave has aimed a little lower, opting for the straightforward suspense thriller The Rental. While certainly no masterpiece, it has the distinction of being more successful than anything Franco the elder has attempted, an admittedly low bar. It’s a simple set up, as a group of friends rent a lavish Airbnb for a weekend getaway to celebrate a successful round of new investors in their startup company. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (Alison Brie) are the married couple; Mina (Sheila Vand) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White) are dating. Josh also happens to be Charlie’s little brother, while Mina is Charlie’s business partner. Franco and co-screenwriter Joe Swanberg map out these connections, as well as the group’s interpersonal dynamics, quickly and efficiently, aided immeasurably by their cast. The game actors all evince an easy-going, laid-back charm, and they demonstrate both casual rapport and believable chemistry.
But this is genre fare and things get complicated quickly, as their host reveals a casual racism towards Mina (who has a ‘middle-eastern’ sounding name; actress Vand is of Iranian descent) and keeps popping up unexpectedly. At this point, it should be noted that it’s best to go into The Rental mostly blind. There’s no shocking twist here, but part of the pleasure of watching a thriller unfold is the gradual unfurling of some larger plot. That larger plot in The Rental acts almost orbitally — everything revolves around it, and it becomes both the film’s primary feature and bug. As enjoyable as it can be to see pieces of plot snap into place, Franco and Swanberg have written what you might call a ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ film. Here, every line of dialogue and ominous musical cue and slightly off-kilter frame forecasts the film is headed, every step of the way. If one character mentions another’s unsavory history with past girlfriends, you better believe it’s going to come up again. When Josh brings along his dog, despite the ‘no pets’ warning on the listing, it’s obviously going to become integral to the plot. Once hidden cameras get involved, it’s simply a matter of waiting for some of the characters to catch up to the others. For all that, it’s still a modestly successful film, agreeably small scale with a few decent jump scares and a welcome mean streak. And it’s worth noting that Franco demonstrates a nice eye for simple compositions and maximizing the negative space in the frame. Where The Rental flags is in its lack of imagination: for better or worse, this is the kind of film that will only ever treat an open door in the background as a frame for a shadowy figure.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | July 2020.