If you’ve seen The Rental and were at all affected by it, you may never vacation the same way again. Specifically, if you check into a rental property — an idyllic, too-good-to-be-true, cliff-hugging property on the Pacific Coast, perhaps — the first thing you will do is inspect the showerheads. You will be looking for hidden cameras.
Voyeurism is a central theme of Dave Franco’s directorial debut, and it’s presented just plausibly enough to give even the least paranoid traveler pause. Gerald Foos, the Colorado motel operator famously chronicled in Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel, has nothing on the figure pulling the strings in Franco’s nightmarish genre-bender.
We first meet Charlie (Dan Stevens), a young tech entrepreneur, scrolling through travel-porn images of such a vacation rental on his office computer, each spacious interior and windswept exterior taking his breath away. His business partner Mina (Sheila Vand) has huddled next to him, their faces nearly touching, as they decide to splurge on a two-night dream vacation. Observing their actions, we have every reason to believe Mina and Charlie are a couple, a sly and intentional move from Franco. We’re surprised when Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) enters the office with a kiss for Mina.
It is Josh, who has served prison time, and who is described by his brother as a “barely employed Lyft driver,” who is the unexpected match for the brainy Mina. Charlie, meanwhile, is married to Michelle (Alison Brie), a lovely and practical woman. But even in his bedroom, he can’t stop singing the praises of his seductive co-worker — “the complete package” — and her inexplicable attraction to his lunkhead brother.
And so, the pieces are in place for an intimate couple’s excursion that is bound to result in some uncomfortable sexual tension, evil voyeur machinations aside. This is the milieu in which Joe Swanberg, the film’s co-writer with Franco, is most comfortable. Since 2005, he has directed 18 features, plus the acclaimed Netflix series Easy, nearly all of which chronicle the fragility of relationships among privileged, insecure millennials.
The first half of The Rental plays like another such Swanberg feature, albeit with sinister undertones. As soon as our characters arrive at the house, Taylor (Toby Huss), the overly solicitous property manager, lobbies cryptic microaggressions toward the Muslim-American Mina. Both brothers may be infatuated with her, but neither, in their effort to go along to get along, feels compelled to take her side. And what’s with Taylor’s uncouth joke about “peeping toms” when his guests inquire about the use of a high-powered telescope for stargazing?
Is Taylor a villain or a MacGuffin? Franco walks this delicate balance for much of the running time, though an answer arrives in the movie’s bloodier second half. Some critics have noted a certain shakiness with which Franco juggles genre here, but he has, from the opening notes, a surety of tone. Like an ombré hair coloring, The Rental starts out as one thing and elegantly blends to another, with a period of overlap in the middle. It is fully an uncomfortable comedy, then fully a slasher — a Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the Bay Area mumblecore set.
I attended a screening of The Rental at the five-screen Paradigm Cinemas in Tamarac, South Florida’s only indoor movie theater open for business, though it’s available on all the major platforms. The theater owner commented that audiences were less than lukewarm about the ending, and it’s easy to see why. Franco pulls out all the grindhouse stops, which makes for punishing viewing, and its bold five-minute coda is structurally disruptive in the best way.
If some audiences won’t be able to handle this reconfiguration, Franco should take it as a compliment. After all, they’re rattled enough to feel something. And even its detractors, next time they rent a quaint timeshare, may just be compelled to check the smoke alarm for bugs.
THE RENTAL. Director: Dave Franco; Cast: Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand, Alison Brie, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss; Distributor: IFC; Rating: R; Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu and iTunes; playing through today at Paradigm Cinemas 5 in Tamarac