You know the old adage, “if it’s too good to be true it probably is.”
Or is it, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t?” Hmm. That’s a debate for a different column.
Either way, that’s the case made here in THE RENTAL (2020), a new horror movie by first-time director Dave Franco, which tells the story of two couples enjoying a dream vacation house for the weekend, only to find out that things aren’t so dreamy there. This is all well and good, except the reason why things aren’t so dreamy there, is a head-scratcher.
And that’s because the superior screenplay by Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg sets up the perfect story, with really believable characters, and places them in a subtly precarious situation, and so for two thirds of the movie, THE RENTAL is an extremely satisfying and intriguing thriller. But then everything unravels in the film’s final reel with a standard and not very interesting conclusion which is fathoms below all that had come before it.
THE RENTAL (2020) opens with power couple Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) planning the perfect weekend getaway at a remarkable rental property off in the wilderness. Charlie and Mina run their own business together, and for them, it’s the perfect union. They are not however, together romantically. No, Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie), and Mina is dating Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Hmm, I sense trouble in paradise.
And so do these two couples even before they head out to the rental home, as Mina’s initial application for the vacation property was denied, while moments later Charlie’s was accepted. Since Mina is of Middle Eastern descent, she immediately smells racism. Their suspicions aren’t assuaged when they meet the man renting the house, a rather unsavory looking fellow named Taylor (Toby Huss). He explains that his wealthy brother owns the property, while he only tends to the caretaking duties.
Tension mounts as the foursome feels uncomfortable about Taylor as he seems to come and go as he pleases, and also as Charlie and Mina find it more difficult to resist the sexual tension between them, and as Michelle and Josh begin to notice. The suspense builds as events happen which threaten to turn their lives upside down, and then the film throws a curveball into the mix which comes out of nowhere. Which is too bad because what came before it was pretty darn good.
Up until the disappointing conclusion, I was really, really enjoying THE RENTAL. The screenplay by director Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg creates a captivating story with interesting characters and believable dialogue throughout. I liked the dynamic between the two couples, which I thought worked really well. Charlie and Mina’s relationship isn’t one we see on screen all that often, two professionals who adore each other’s work and seem to be completely in sync and in love but on a professional level. It’s a no-brainer that they are sexually attracted to each other. Yet, in the same breath, Charlie is happily married to Michelle, and Mina really loves Josh, and so Charlie and Mina intellectually really don’t want to be with each other. Further adding to the mix is that Josh is very insecure and feels inferior to both Charlie and Mina, and part of him expects Mina to leave him.
So, even before you get to the horror elements, you have a really engaging story happening.
The horror stuff is low-key, but it’s there, and it gradually builds, setting the stage for everything to go to hell at a moment’s notice, and strangely that’s where the problem lies. See, the answer the film provides as to just what the threat is inside this house, is a major letdown. First, it takes a page right out of Horror Movie 101, which the rest of this film is not. Now, this by itself, wouldn’t be enough to ruin this movie. I don’t mind a more traditional answer to a nontraditonal beginning. The biggest problem here is the explanation provided. It’s nonsensical. It’s akin to having a well-constructed thriller visited by a Michael Myers type killer in the final reel only without any of Myer’s backstory or reason for being.
As I said, this is Dave Franco’s directorial debut and it’s a good one. He builds suspense throughout and creates many unsettling moments. He also shoots this one to not look like a traditional horror movie, as there are plenty of bright sunshine filled scenes, especially of the scenery around the house. And then when things grow more sinister it’s dark and the fog rolls in. Franco of course is James Franco’s brother and is more known for his acting roles, having appeared in such films as THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017). NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), and 21 JUMP STREET (2012) to name just a few. His impressive directorial debut suggests he may have a career behind the camera as well.
I enjoyed the cast. Dan Stevens, who we just saw in the Will Ferrell comedy EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA (2020) is excellent as Charlie, the self-assured young entrepreneur who has his whole life ahead of him, a beautiful wife who he loves, and an incredibly brilliant business partner who he also absolutely adores. Perhaps too much. Stevens is a fine actor who we also saw earlier this year in THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020), and who also played the Beast in the Disney live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).
Alison Brie, who is married to Dave Franco, is a wonderful actress who shines yet again here as Michelle, the wife who up until this weekend had no reason to doubt her successful husband. Brie is known for the TV series MADMEN (2007-2015) and GLOW (2017-2019), and we just saw her in the intriguing drama HORSE GIRL (2020) a few weeks back.
Sheila Vand gives what might be the best performance in the movie, as Mina, who is torn between her feelings for Charlie and Josh. She’s also the first to really receive bad vibes from Taylor. The best part of this movie is that the dynamic between the two couples is very real, largely because of the performances, and Vand leads the way. She also starred A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014).
Jeremy Allen White is convincing as Josh, who constantly lives in the shadow of his brother, and while he expresses anxiety about this, it’s not crippling nor cliche. He’s a pretty decent guy overall.
And Toby Huss is sufficiently creepy as the rather unsavory and racist caretaker Taylor. Huss also starred in HORSE GIRL with Alison Brie and had one of the film’s best scenes.
Overall, I liked THE RENTAL. Its disappointing conclusion didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it did take it down several notches from where it was.
It’s definitely worth a look. It’s just too bad it wasn’t able to finish what it started.
Yup. This is one weekend getaway that really was too good to be true.