Dave Franco shows promise in his feature directorial debut. The Rental is a lean, Hitchcockian thriller that devolves into a standard slasher film. The first two acts are quite gripping. A seemingly innocent weekend vacation exposes deep rifts between the characters. The tension becomes more pronounced after a well-timed reveal. But instead of capitalizing, the film veers into familiar territory. The Rental has your attention rapt, then loses intrigue with rote horror tropes.
Dan Stevens stars as Charlie, a start-up founder in San Francisco. His business partner, Mina (Sheila Vand), is in a relationship with his rambunctious brother. Josh (Jeremy Allen White) isn't nearly as successful. He's served time in prison for assault. He struggles to hold a job. Charlie and Mina land a big investment in their burgeoning company. The hard work is finally paying off. They decide to celebrate by renting a luxurious coastal house for the weekend.
The brothers and their significant others have a bumpy start to the getaway. Mina, who's Middle Eastern, feels racially profiled by the home's gruff caretaker (Toby Huss). Charlie is angry Josh brought his dog when pets aren't allowed. He wonders why someone like Mina would ever be interested in his brother. Michelle (Alison Brie), Charlie's wife, brings a special party favor to liven up their escape. It unleashes a chain of events with bloody consequences.
The Rental initially builds dread like a slow boil. The couples keep dark secrets from each other. Every trickle leaked adds up to a deluge. The situation becomes more complicated through lies and deceit. This is the point where the narrative completely changes direction. The skillfully depicted psychological conflicts are lost. Subtlety is replaced by brutal action. Running through pitch black woods. Separating for no reason whatsoever. Developed characters turn into mindless fodder. The Rental becomes a generic horror film with no depth.
Dave Franco, known primarily for supporting roles in the Now You See Me and Neighbors films, gets high marks for his acting ensemble. The characters waste little time. Franco brings their simmering problems quickly to the surface. They are forced to address the cracks in their relationships. The plot's sinister turn should have been based on these developments. There's significant meat left on the bone to chew. Franco, who also co-wrote the screenplay, leaves a mountain of good exposition on the table. He goes from scalpel precision to sledgehammer tactics. The violent climax leaves the characters' issues unresolved.
The Rental takes the easy way out. There's nothing to discuss if you're running for your life. The earlier interplay between the couples pretty much amounts to nothing. The finale feels perfunct and unsatisfactory. That said, I was certainly on board for the entire ride. Dave Franco makes the most of the eighty-eight minute runtime. He deserves credit for the engaging aspects of the film. He needs to embrace complexity, not run from it, in his next effort as a director. The Rental is a production of Black Bear Pictures. It will be available July 24th on demand from IFC Films.