The Rental. 2020.
Directed by Dave Franco. Screenplay by Franco & Joe Swanberg.
Starring Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, & Anthony Molinari.
Black Bear Pictures
Rated 14A / 88 minutes
Horror / Thriller
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS! Turn back lest ye be spoiled.
If The Rental wasn’t great it’d still get love from me just for the fact Dave Franco chose to do a horror for his first feature as director right out the gate. It’s twice as exciting to see Franco’s delivered a grimly fun and unsettling story, co-written by multi-hyphenate Joe Swanberg, that creeps up on its audience and then caves their head in. Certainly doesn’t hurt that the cast is fantastic. The characters feel painfully real, so by the time this goes from paranoid thriller to an inevitably horrific conclusion we’re caught tight in the story’s web, and it doesn’t matter who’s an asshole and who’s not anymore.
Franco’s film follows two couples on a weekend getaway at a picturesque Airbnb for a celebratory mini-vacation. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (Alison Brie), along with Charlie’s business partner Mina (Sheila Vand) and her man, Charlie’s younger brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), head to a big house by the ocean. The perfect bougie getaway. But the trip’s not quite what they expected, from a potentially racist renter, Taylor (Toby Huss), to creepy surveillance devices Mina notices planted in the house.
And that’s not near the worst of this weekend.
The story works as a solid, straight-up horror-thriller. Also embedded in it are compelling modern themes about class, morality, and relationships. Several betrayals amongst the group sparks mistrust that inadvertently leads to a murder and its cover-up. Through the horror that follows we see all the pitfalls of a sharing economy, in which a house is no longer a home but a liminal space almost anybody can enter, as well as how this 21st-century capitalist world we live in divides us by not only class, it divides us across horrifying moral lines, too.
“I know how to keep a secret”
The Rental touches on how the concept of Airbnb reduces a home to just a house, not a place where a person truly lives, or a family, but a liminal space that serves mainly as shelter— in the film, a very fancy shelter. Reducing a house to its basic essentials is good for the supposed ‘sharing economy’— if sharing meant paying one person for a good/service instead of, y’know, sharing— but bad for those who make use of these houses, plus those who own them. The 21st century has allowed for an unprecedented level of intrusion on the privacy of others with surveillance devices small enough to place in a shower head, like the one Mina finds partway through the film. These days we hear plenty about landlords who’ve been caught spying on their tenants, which has happened here in my Canadian province, and it’s something being incorporated into found footage horror, such as the recent 13 Cameras and its sequel 14 Cameras. However, this capitalist sharing economy— giving people access to your property, temporarily making it simultaneously not yours but also not entirely their own— combined with 21st-century surveillance tech creates potential for renters to take advantage of their ability to access those properties. If a landlord’s screening process for an Airbnb isn’t strict, who knows what kind of people they may be letting in? Obvious racist implications aside in Mina’s failed booking, it’s darkly comical that Taylor refused her yet let the psychotic intruder stay there at some point previously, given what we know about the killer’s methods from the film’s final scenes. Because in a sharing economy, capitalist or otherwise, the basic capital exchanged beyond money is also trust.
When it comes to trust Franco and Swanberg’s screenplay does a fine job creating doubt about what’s really going on, at least up until a certain point when it becomes blindingly clear what the true terror is for these oblivious renters. The key to so much of the trouble in the plot is due to assumptions made by the characters, most regarding Taylor. While it’s likely Taylor has SOME kind of issues with people who are brown— his suspicious refusal of Mina’s booking is only more suspicious when he later drops by to fix the hot tub and specifically calls Michelle “that white girl“— the group jumps to conclusions about him being a “Peeping Tom” because of his earlier remark about the telescope coupled with an assumption he’s a racist. They also knowingly break the house’s rules about no pets by bringing the dog, yet Mina hypocritically makes a big deal about Taylor dropping off the telescope by coming inside when they weren’t around. It’s interesting because this feels like a parallel to real life. For instance, people online often focus their attention on the wrong people simply because they’re making assumptions about their character while actual awful things are going on unchecked elsewhere. Just like the group of renters spends time worrying about Taylor when the real horror’s elsewhere using all of their bad decisions against them.What The Rental really comes down to is morality, and Charlie particularly showcases his bourgeois mentality after shit hits the fan. Ironically, the group’s concern about Taylor spirals into serious lapses of morality on their own part, which brings them to the point of attempting to cover up a murder. Charlie and Mina’s refusal to admit they cheated on their partners gets them to this place. Not to mention that after Taylor dies Josh believes he’s the guilty one, and a true morality snowball then rolls into an avalanche, one mistake after another.
Charlie’s most at fault, though. He sees his brother’s freedom as more valuable than Taylor’s life. Taylor’s not the owner of the place. He reads much more working class than his obviously wealthy brother. Josh is working class, too. He uses his vehicle in the capitalist sharing economy as a Lyft driver. It’s Charlie— with a fancy office and ability to rent that house by the sea for a weekend placing him definitively in a high tax bracket— that exhibits bourgeois morality by thinking he can simply cover up the murder of one working class body in exchange for the freedom of another. Not that Josh isn’t at fault. The fact stands that Charlie’s the one who originally refused to call the police because he needed to preserve his bourgeois life.
Most of the film centres on bourgeois status, beginning with the whole getaway itself and ending in a total loss of control. Apart from Charlie’s treatment of Taylor as disposable being indicative of bourgeois morality, his treatment of women is another indication he sees people as commodities, either of use to him or entirely disposable, whether in relationships, or on a literal level of life and death like with Taylor. During Michelle and Josh’s walk in the woods the younger brother accidentally tattles on older brother by revealing things she’d previously not known about her husband’s pattern of cheating behaviour. She later finds out the pattern has only continued, after the intruder reveals Charlie’s betrayal. This begins Charlie’s loss of control, going from a bourgeois captain of industry in the tech world with all that economic power to being rendered figuratively impotent by the intruder’s all-seeing eye/command over the rental house.
There have been a few similar horror films over the past decade that end on a note like The Rental— for instance, 388 Arletta Avenue, Hangman, ATM, and Evil Things, where we see the omniscient killer doing surveillance on new victims to prepare for their next kill(s)— but Franco manages to make something far better than either of those titles. There’s a great switch from paranoid thriller to slasher flick that may come as jarring to some. Others will wholly embrace it. What ultimately makes the entire thing work is the strong cast. You feel like another friend in the room (the “brocean” and “Broseph Gordon–Levitt” scene is a crack up that feels ultra-real), so the eventual vicious betrayals come like a gut punch with not much time to catch your breath before the murder starts.
A strong, nasty film in the best way possible. The Rental does good work without needing any thematic bells and whistles. Those treats are there, if you want them. Franco and Swanberg’s screenplay taps into 21st-century concerns about class and morals in a capitalist sharing economy, looking at the terrors of Airbnb renting, as well as how relationships are affected, and threatened, in this day and age. There’s much to enjoy here, no matter how you choose to ingest this slick horror-thriller. And talk about morality! How often is the dog the last one standing in a film where the main cast gets slaughtered? Reggie the French bulldog, the only character not part of a ruthless capitalist economy, can now live his life free in the woods.
Viva la Reggie! Get after it, boy.