Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 23rd, 2020
The Rental (Dave Franco, 2020) 1 out of 4 stars.
While it is generally a given in any horror film that characters die, it’s nice if they do so in service of a premise that makes their sacrifices count, dramatically speaking. If we are to invest in their fate, care at all about who they are and why their deaths are tragic (if, indeed, they are), then the director owes it to us to weave some kind of cinematic tapestry whereby A can eventually lead to Z. Or at least that’s my hope, and the kind of film I enjoy. Though horror may not be my favorite genre, I’m always game to try, and hopefully can find something to appreciate amidst the bloodshed. While Ari Aster’s 2018 Hereditary did not entirely work for me, it at least offered up a solid bit of plot construction (until it fell apart); his 2019 Midsommar was even stronger. In short, bring on the gruesome, but please make it, somehow, meaningful.
Actor Dave Franco (6 Balloons) gives it a go with his directorial debut, The Rental, assisted by co-writer Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas), and, sorry to say, fails rather spectacularly, though it is initially hard to see just how pointless the exercise will be, given the high production value and decent performances. Dan Stevens (Apostle) and Sheila Vand (We the Animals) star as Charlie and Mina, business partners who decide to take a weekend getaway with their romantic partners, Michelle (Alison Brie, The Little Hours) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White, After Everything). Josh happens to be Charlie’s ne’er-do-well brother, as well. So, off they got to a beautiful, secluded cliffside house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, hours away from wherever they live (the actual filmed location is Bandon, Oregon), which they find through an Airbnb-like service. With eerie music playing on the soundtrack, what could go wrong?
As one expects, quite a lot. First, though, we get to spend a lot of time with mostly unlikeable people, the two guys, especially. Dan is a shallow jerk, drunk on his own success (whatever it is that he and Mina do), while Josh has apparently struggled his whole life, and even spent time in prison; his would probably be the more interesting backstory, were it provided, and as it turns out, he is the kinder of the two. Listening to their bro-ish banter (quite literally, as they trade phrases laced with “bro”), one wishes that their demise would come sooner, rather than later. Of the women, though Michelle seems sweet, it’s Mina who has the greatest potential, and for a while it seems as if Franco and Swanberg’s script will do more with her than with the others, since it makes a big deal about her Middle Eastern background and the house agent’s racist reaction to it. But no, none of it matters, as none of it has anything to do with what goes down.
Instead, any emotional stakes we might feel in the outcome are, by the end, exploded. Our nominal protagonists are all just pawns in someone else’s scheme, and we never learn much about that faceless individual beyond his desire to kill, kill, kill and then kill again. Oh, and he likes cameras. Hidden ones. That’s it. There is no raison d’être. And while narrative anarchy has its place in this world, to shake things up and make us rethink the order of things, we’re afforded none of the pleasures of even that sense of purpose, though the ending certainly telegraphs that the creators believe they have one. A purpose, that is. To this viewer, stuff just happens, and then it stops. Exeunt.