The Rental (2020)

NOVEMBER 28, 2020


I forget who it was, but someone pointed out that The Strangers would have been an interesting movie even without the title characters, since the relationship drama of its protagonist couple was pretty compelling on its own (if you never saw, or forgot: she had just turned down his marriage proposal before arriving at their romantic getaway cabin). A similar attempt is made in The Rental, and doesn't even introduce the villain until the halfway point or so, but the key difference is Strangers' protagonists weren't bad people, and you could still root for both of them. Not so much here.

To be fair they're not AWFUL, but rather just cliches: it's the gala five millionth modern horror movie that has its protagonists involved in a secret affair. The title refers to an airbnb that business partners Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) have rented to celebrate some new business deal along with their respective partners, Michelle (Alison Brie) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White). And Josh and Charlie are brothers, so it's a pretty tight-knit group... which had me suspecting an affair between Charlie and Mina almost instantly, because it's a modern horror movie and that's apparently the only thing that's legally allowed to serve as the source of drama in such things. Sure enough, one night Josh passes out drunk and Michelle isn't feeling well, leaving the others to take all of nine seconds to hop into the hot tub and then the shower.

Weirdly, the way it's depicted is so cavalier it seemed like it was an ongoing thing, like any time they could get away with it they would be fooling around. But the next morning the two make excuses not to join the others on a hike, and both seem to regret it and offer "that can never happen again" type sentiments, as if it was indeed the first time. So to me, the casual way it happened almost seems like a gag, in retrospect. Like, "We're the leads in a 21st century genre film, so we need to be having an affair. Let's just get on with it." And not just any affair - Charlie is banging his own brother's girlfriend, further reducing the amount of energy I can possibly devote to worrying about him. But while one out of four wouldn't be insurmountable, the others aren't particularly interesting either; they're all just stock characters whose names I couldn't remember by the time I wrote these paragraphs.

The closest thing to an exception is Mina, who is Iranian and suspects the guy renting the place out to them (Toby Huss!) is racist because she tried to book the place and was denied, only for Charlie (i.e. a white guy) to successfully book it an hour later. And yeah, it seems he is, as he makes weird comments like "How'd you get mixed up with these folks?" (i.e. white people), but that's the extent of it - when the movie paints him as a villain later due to the discovery of hidden cameras, there's a huge opportunity for them to treat him as a racist and act accordingly (and perhaps discover he never was racist, just weird), but it has nothing to do with that. They're only freaking out because that means he has proof of them having shower sex. So it's a totally go-nowhere plot point.

But once it turns into a slasher movie, it actually kind of makes up for all of the first half's lapses. If I may allow myself one spoiler (skip this paragraph if you don't want the killer's motive hinted at!) it's that this is where the Strangers comparison becomes more apt, as our guy doesn't give a hoot about their affairs or racially charged paranoia or anything like that - he's as indiscriminate as Michael Myers in the original Halloween. The final sequence of the film gives all the context we need (or will ever hopefully get), and justifies a lot of the movie's earlier issues, chalking things up to randomness instead of the convoluted giallo-like plot I was fearing (anytime a new business deal is involved one must suspect a money-driven motive for any killing that may occur!). Also, I can't fully explain this comment without major spoilers, so I will just say that the ending also avoids a pet peeve I have with surface-level similar films (if you must spoil it for yourself, or have already seen it and want to know what I'm getting at, read this review and forgive my thirteen year old drooling over its actress).

It also takes an interesting approach to the "should you put trust in a stranger?" element of such rental services. Mina is insulted by the guy before they even get there, and when Michelle mentions that she wished they had a telescope to look at the stars (not something we can really do in LA thanks to the smog) Huss says he'll bring one by later, and does - when they're not even there. Granted, when you're in a hotel there's any number of people who can access your room, but it's definitely different when it's someone who can't even really get in trouble for going in there - it's his house, after all (Mina even finds someone's meds in the bathroom). When it's a traditional home you might let your guard down a bit compared to a hotel room, but in reality it's more likely someone will invade your space when it's an open home. And who's to say the previous renters didn't make a key or something?

For a first time feature director, Dave Franco (who co-wrote with Joe Swanberg) does a fine job with the scary stuff; he even got a jolt out of me, something even the masters can't always achieve (seeing Brie here made me want to revisit Scream 4, a film that has not one decent jump). And even though they're all playing generic stock folks, the performances are solid, particularly White as the most sympathetic of the lot, a guy who has always felt like he can't be as successful as his big brother and then discovers the guy is banging his girlfriend for good measure. He also found a solid location, one that feels like a genuine place one would rent (and want to stay at) but also feels appropriate for a horror movie. I myself have only used airbnb once, and it was a very nice place but apart from the bizarre lack of a curtain or door on the shower (it didn't even have a rod for a curtain?) there was nothing "scary movie" about it - anything set entirely there would be pretty dull, I think. Also I wouldn't have banged my brother's girlfriend or anyone else in the shower since it didn't have a damn curtain.

Besides the trailer, the Blu has only one real bonus feature, a fluffy featurette that tells us nothing. Franco's done commentaries for movies he has only acted in, so I'm disappointed he wasn't on hand to chat about being on the other side of the camera - first time directors tend to make more interesting tracks than a tired guy making his 20th movie, and he's a charming guy anyway (he's the better Franco by a mile) so I wouldn't have minded listening to him talk about his choices/process. Perhaps he could have roped in his wife (that'd be Brie) to play a woman who gets cheated on? Oh well. I really should just get used to the physical release of a modern movie being treated as an afterthought I guess. Then again, the name of the film describes its existence - this is a perfect Redbox or iTunes rental, as it's a pretty good thriller with a great finale, but also nothing you'd probably ever want to watch again.

What say you?

P.S. I will spoil something here out of necessity, because I don't want anyone to shut the movie off when it seems like it's going the other way: the dog lives!


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