So much of our media's social commentary in the digital era revolves around privacy, who has access to it, and how it is manipulated. Black Mirror has branded itself as being the best at this (though it's a hit or miss depending on the episode), and the recent rise of screen-capture films (like the marvelous Unfriended: Dark Web) have capitalized on this by creating scenarios that focus on a fear of the loss of control that already exists in our lives.
With his directorial debut, The Rental, Dave Franco tries but fails to do the same, by placing his characters in a creepy Airbnb setting. Problem is, Franco can't make up his mind about where to take the narrative. The film is caught somewhere between the kind of "elevated horror" that thinks it has something to say about society without ever really saying anything and the mumblecore horror the film's co-writer Joe Swanberg is known for.
The plot of The Rental can be boiled down simply: Two couples (Dan Stevens and Alison Brie; Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White) rent a vacation home together to have some time off together, and things go awry after just one day. It comes complete with everything you'd expect from a basic horror movie, from the weird host (a criminally underused Toby Huss) and a disappearing dog to sex and drugs and secrets and lazy shots of someone watching the house.
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Franco and Swanberg seem to offer up 20 different routes for the film to go, be it a psychological thriller or a voyeuristic slasher, but it can't commit to any one option it proposes. Its voyeuristic angle is especially embarrassing, the sort of thing you'd expect a frat bro who saw Michael Haneke's Funny Games and Cache in class once to pontificate about. For a short sequence that comes out of nowhere, Franco pivots from the film's grim, muddled cinematography to indulge in showing how the action happens through hidden cameras. It's a perfect glimpse of what an exciting horror experiment this could have been.
But mostly, The Rental simply attempts to make its audience care about its characters and the strained relationships between them. Stevens and White's passive-aggressive brotherhood is pointless, and an awkward will-they-or-won't-they affair routine between Stevens and Vand is eye-roll worthy. If anything can be considered the film's saving grace, it's the consistently great Alison Brie, who turns in a committed performance that delivers on a comic level more than the dramatic beats the script tries to offer her and her companions.
But Brie alone isn't enough to save this unimaginative movie from being the mess it is, nor are the few jokes it manages to sneak in around all the mundane scripting and lack of scares. The Rental could have been a lean, mean horror film that took after any one of the thrillers it seems desperate to imitate and subvert. It's a shame it ended up just being dull.
The Rental. Starring Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White. Directed by Dave Franco. Written by Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg. Rated R. 88 minutes. Premieres on-demand Friday, July 24.