Halfway through 2020, we’re all surely craving some sort of remote getaway (maybe Pluto?) But this summer, first with “You Should Have Left” and now “The Rental,” the movies seem to be sending those of us seeking such isolation, at least via Airbnb, a stark message: Be careful what you wish for.
More bluntly: Stay home! That gorgeous rental with floor-to-ceiling windows? More like floor-to-ceiling murder and mayhem. And who knew “drop-dead views” was a literal term?
“The Rental,” the feature directing debut by Dave Franco, starts out in a strikingly similar vein to “You Should Have Left”: Affluent Californians look online, experience real-estate porn, book relaxing getaway.
But where the earlier film sputtered just when we expected a good payoff for all that tension, “The Rental” knows how to stick its landing. If such horror films can be split into three parts — dreamy setup, scary stuff happens, all-hell-breaks loose ending — what makes “The Rental” a more satisfying experience is that the ending actually IS scary and suspenseful, even surprising.
Not that Franco’s story, written with Joe Swanberg, breaks any ground; the surprise is mild, rather than revelatory. But it earns our attention because, unlike many horror films, Franco has taken the time to make his characters somewhat interesting, with nice casting (especially the reliably excellent Dan Stevens), a subplot about infidelity, and another about racial profiling.
We begin with an attractive millennial couple, Charlie (Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), gazing at the online profile of a cliffside house somewhere up the coast from the Bay Area (the film was shot in foggy southern Oregon). It’s costly, but they decide to go for it.
Then Mina’s boyfriend, Josh, enters the room. Turns out Charlie and Mina are business partners, not lovers. Josh (Jeremy Allen White) is Charlie’s much-less-successful brother. Charlie’s married to Michelle (Alison Brie), the most upbeat and energetic of the bunch.
And so the four set off. In the car, Mina stews over the fact that her Middle Eastern last name may have been the reason her initial request to rent the house was denied, while Charlie’s, an hour later, was accepted. Her suspicions are hardly assuaged when, arriving at the property, the host, a guy named Taylor who lives up the street, appears to be a prejudiced jerk. In any case, the two couples are determined to have a great time: nice hikes, good meals, and a bit of recreational drugs, to get in the mood.
Then, in the hot tub, the simmering chemistry between Charlie and Mina bubbles to the surface, and they end up in the shower together. Which makes it very inconvenient when Mina soon discovers there’s a camera in the shower head. They’re convinced that creepy Taylor is recording them.
Oh, and Josh’s dog goes missing — heck, they weren’t supposed to bring a dog anyway. But still, a missing pet is often the first sign of things going wrong in a horror film.
The best scenes in the film go to Vand, whose role as the emotionally conflicted, strong-but-scared heroine is the meatiest in the script. Brie is also compelling, though she has less to do. Franco (her husband) directs the proceedings — a taut 88 minutes, perfect for these distracted times — with a sure hand, keeping us interested.
He’s said he based the story on his own “paranoia” about online rentals like Airbnbs. Of course, he was also inspired by “The Shining” — the pioneering real-estate porn horror film (but very pre-Airbnb) for which there really is no substitute.
But Franco has made a briskly entertaining debut feature, a nice way to spend an escapist summer evening. Not from your Airbnb, though.