By Chris Narine
Ever since his breakout turn in 2012’s “21 Jump Street”, Dave Franco has made a name for himself as an emerging star, who’s shown plenty of comedic chops and charisma in films such as “Neighbors” and “The Disaster Artist.” Franco is at a dynamic point in his career where he’s ventured off into working with much more dramatic material. Whether it be his brief role in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” or his dramatic turn alongside Abbi Jacobson, as a heroin addict in Marja-Lewis Ryan’s “6 Balloons”. Because of the place that he has reached in his career, the notion of a directorial debut from him is hardly surprising. Still, given the creative involvement on “The Rental” from mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg, one can only be curious as to what just the results would entail.
The film follows two couples as they join together for a peaceful getaway in an ocean-view home up for rental. There are Charlie and Michelle, played by Dan Stevens and Alison Brie, and Charlie’s brother Josh and Mina, played by Jeremy Allen White and Sheila Vand. As tension begins to stir between said couples throughout the weekend, they begin to make some rather strange and disturbing discoveries regarding the rental home, and of course, horror ensues. For starters, it’s certainly worth noting that Franco’s directing skills are undeniably present throughout “The Rental,” as you can feel the influences of other modern horror filmmakers creep up on occasion.
Even if it’s the riveting stillness of an Ari Aster picture or the intimate tension that Adam Wingard brought to 2013’s slasher flick “You’re Next,” it’s clear that Franco’s sensibilities are all based on a transparent admiration for cinema. However, despite all of Franco’s efforts as a director, his work is not enough to elevate a tired, terribly disjointed screenplay and inconsistent tone.
From a writing standpoint, the story is chock-full of red herrings, as much of the character drama that builds towards the film’s abrasive climax feels meaningless. There are themes of racism, infidelity, toxic masculinity, and even gaslighting thrown in the mix here, and needs more room for further exploration and development to feel entirely earned. While one could perhaps view the film through an angle of it representing seedy characters put through the wringer, none of these characters think defined or compelling enough to for that element to work genuinely. For the film’s first 2 acts, it’s merely a collection of heavily flawed characters making profoundly misguided decisions, but for what reason? I couldn’t tell you.
With a cast of this caliber on deck and working with such dialogue-driven material, it’s difficult to limit their skills as actors, which thankfully doesn’t occur. The whole cast is game here, with Alison Brie and Jeremy Allen White, in particular, standing out. Still, for all the charisma and gravitas that these people have, it’s simply never enough to make the character dynamics ring particularly true. Outside of the writing, there’s a lot of talent to be found. Christian Springer, DP of the Donald Glover-helmed FX show “Atlanta,” brings a haunting aesthetic to his cinematography here, and shoots this thing impeccably. Meanwhile, music composers Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans bring the same level of chilling atmosphere that they had brought with this year’s earlier, and frankly much better indie horror flick “The Lodge.”
The talent assembled for Franco’s debut film is nothing short of remarkable, and I genuinely believe that Franco has it in him to make a film that’s far more unique and cohesive. But for his first outing, his talents seem to be lost within a story that’s most certainly beneath him. For all the unique themes and ideas presented early on, some feel outweighed and diminished by the familiar tropes found in the film’s 3rd act. Unfortunately for me, the moment those credits began to roll, I couldn’t help but feel lost too.
Review Grade: C-