Early responses to The Rental, the directorial debut of actor Dave Franco, have been interestingly divided. While movies often do better with general audiences than with critics, jaded as they are from seeing formulas endlessly redeployed, this one has inspired the opposite reaction. That might be the expectation for more experimental, arthouse films, but The Rental, with its recognizable cast, straightforward story, and accessible storytelling, doesn’t fit that profile. So, what is it about Franco’s film that appeals to the critic but frustrates the average moviegoer? I see it more as an issue of expectation than of taste, one that I am hopefully in a position to correct: don’t sit down to watch this expecting an out-and-out horror film, or you’ll be disappointed by what is actually some pretty clever genre-bending.
Adding modern specificity to a classic story structure, The Rental sees two couples book an Airbnb on the California coastline for a much-needed weekend getaway, only to have things go horribly wrong. That synopsis might scream traditional horror, but the characters are no mere archetypes, and Franco’s film is as much relationship drama as slasher. Charlie (Dan Stevens) is married to Michelle (Alison Brie) and works with Mina (Sheila Vand), who happens to be dating his younger brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Charlie somewhat disapproves of their relationship, given Josh’s troubled past, while his closeness with Mina is a point of tension for both couples. This trip is already an emotional powder keg, and with the four unwittingly walking into physical danger, their weekend can only end in utter disaster.
Individually, these two narrative arcs are little more than solid. The dialogue is a touch too on the nose to be wholly engrossing or insightful, though the performances are better, and Franco gets good mileage out of just capturing their interactions. While the couples feel somewhat smoothed over, the frayed sibling dynamic between Charlie and Josh is well handled, able to consistently generate tension with small comments and gestures. The horror elements only come into full force in the third act, and while they are thrilling, they won’t feel like a full meal. With the horror expectation established from the outset, the delay in escalation will leave you hanging a bit, and a more decisively cultivated atmosphere could have managed the audience more effectively.
The Rental is more than the sum of its parts, however, and the nimbleness of its structure is actually quite impressive. Franco and co-writer Joe Swanberg deeply intertwine the two narrative strands, equalizing their stakes by making them dependent on each other to progress, and the friction between them generates a lot of creative spark. When a filmmaker can have destructive secrets surface in the middle of a violent, horror-style attack and make both feel equally urgent, I cannot help but admire their craftsmanship. Knowing that this is the film’s true value will hopefully help you avoid the disappointment of unmet expectations, but even then, there may still be a sense of unmet potential. I peg The Rental as a disciple of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Franco never manages to emerge from that film’s formidable shadow— but what he did accomplish has me looking forward to his next work.