Cinema Review: The Rental | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, August 15th, 2020  

The Rental

Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Dave Franco

Jul 21, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Few trends have captured the millennial sense of self worth and (occasional) sense of self awareness as mumblecore. Defined primarily by muffled naturalistic dialogue, lo-fi production values, and a near-total preoccupation with the trials and tribulations of young middle class Americans, over the past two decades directors like Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg have carved out their own niches in a genre characterised by nicheness. 

Sadly, in his directorial debut, The Rental, actor Dave Franco seems a little too content bedding down in these well-dug trenches.

Sharing writing duties with Swanberg, Franco sidesteps into the surprisingly well-populated mumblegore sub-genre, reframing a weekend getaway as the backdrop for a slow-burning home invasion—think a more subdued You’re Next. The Rental opens on Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) as they cosy up together to ogle a grotesquely decadent Airbnb on the coast; even as they balk at the price per night, they quickly decide it’s a fitting way to celebrate securing seed money for their undefined business venture. So far, so nauseating.

The film’s earliest twist, and the fraught conceit underpinning much of the plot, is that Mina is actually dating Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White) a far less put together Lyft driver with a violent prior prosecution hanging over his head. Meanwhile, Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie), though he regularly seems hazy on that matter. As he introduces the criss-crossed foursome to the Airbnb’s caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss) he stumbles when defining his relationship with Mina: “My partner Mina...my work partner...also happens to be Josh’s girlfriend.” It’s the sound of a man who’s never had to choose.

Franco and Swanberg’s script is at its strongest when they’re mining the personal moments of tension between these four, revealing barely repressed sourness in minor moments of ignorance and passive aggression. As the weekend unfolds with the sort of mild alcohol and drug abuse befitting privileged holiday makers, tongues that have remained bitten for years slowly come unclamped. What Franco and Swanberg never make a strong case for is the necessity of pairing this ticking emotional time bomb with stock horror tropes, other than to give the film a recognisable structure and climax.

The Rental is probably best viewed blind, but the manner in which events end up unfolding are pretty predictable from the outset. The caretaker sidles in and out of frame with all the charm befitting a slow-talking racist sleazebag, the craggy cliff and the crashing waves act as a constant reminder that something spooky is afoot, and the house itself has all the eery trappings you’d expect; an unexplained digitally-locked basement, ceiling ventilators that are made auspicious by Franco’s preoccupation with placing them centre frame, and a gradually revealed network of hidden cameras and microphones.

Another issue is that while the characters all talk like real human beings, they also talk in the same manner all Swanberg characters do, stumbling over one another in charming non-sequiturs and dripping with smarmy self-deprecation. There’s an attempt at a Get Out-style consideration of the racially-loaded microaggressions aimed at Mina by Taylor (and subsequently brushed over by Charlie) but The Rental is more interested in various iterations of the same navel-gazing hipster. It’s a loaded critique, sure, but it doesn’t do much more than emphasise their shared awfulness—a generally accepted truth well covered by Swanberg already.

Like many mumblecore pictures, The Rental is largely dialogue-oriented, but Franco at least exhibits some small confidence when it comes to direction. Franco’s DP Christian Sprenger suffuses everything with the same muted colour palette that characterised his work on Atlanta, doubling down on earthy reds and turquoise blues—the lurking blood and bile beneath every neatly organised bookcase and carefully positioned set of kitchenware. Likewise there’s a simple formalism to the moments of horror, whether it’s the frame lifting with each breath of an unseen observer, or the ominous close-ups of otherwise innocent household objects.

Competent then, but nothing novel. Franco’s focus on his characters promises an effective, lean melodrama, but it never quite gels with the moments of formulaic terror. The commentary concerning Airbnbs seems to only extend toward scepticism aimed at commercial enterprises that squarely target the young and flush, and the eventual reveal doesn’t provide the necessary turn of the screw to hold the framework together. The Rental is by no means a dud, but it lacks for that killer insight that would elevate itself above its peers; a byproduct, perhaps, of Franco and Swanberg lacking insight on their killer.

(www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-rental)

Author rating: 5/10

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Average reader rating: 5/10



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