In The Rental, two couples (Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White) rent an idyllic vacation home on the ocean. Staying nearby is the brother of the homeowner (Toby Huss), who reveals himself early on to be slightly creepy and potentially racist. He leaves them be for the weekend, but the four lodgers cannot help but think he is up to something. Then things, as they often do in movies of this sort, quickly start going awry for the four vacationers.
It is a recognizable premise for a low-rent thriller, something which could be easily tossed off as boilerplate were it not for the names behind it. The film’s stars are far more recognizable than your average cabin in the woods type thriller, and that is because this is the directorial debut of actor Dave Franco. Franco’s shared screenwriting credit with Joe Swanberg, the (unofficial) king of mumblecore—who has also dabbled in the genre’s horror cousin mumblegore—brings an added level of credibility and marketability.
And The Rental does swim in the same waters as mumblecore. Relationship strife follows these characters to the vacation home, making portions of this film feel like Drinking Buddies with a creepy neighbor. These interpersonal tensions would read more compelling if they weren’t telegraphed from the opening scenes.
The same goes for the thriller elements of the film. While somewhat less predictable than the four lovers’ romantic arcs, the A-plot involving voyeurism and deception delves into familiar territory. By the time the thriller elements and the romantic drama elements begin to converge, it is fairly clear where the movie is leading.
What results from this convergence is a mumblegore-lite exercise that delivers shallow thrills and superficial explorations of characters’ psyches. A simple dilemma emerges which provides adequate stakes—stakes more exciting than the specter of ruined relationships that fills the film’s first half—but it is difficult to sympathize with the characters’ plight given their barebones characterizations.
None of this truly matters, though, as the film’s final act bluntly (in more ways than one) wraps up loose ends with little fanfare. The untidy narrative proves that much of these characters’ interpersonal dynamics and past lives have little importance to the end result, despite carrying so much weight (and filling up so much screentime) early on.
The shining light in this experience is Brie, who manages to deliver a well-rounded performance in spite of being given the character with arguably the least amount of depth. Her presence alone adds an emotional dimension that is lacking at the script level. But that is not enough to salvage what is ultimately a less-than gripping thriller with uneven plotting and an uncompromising, yet thoroughly unsatisfying, climax.
The Rental: C