Relatively early on in The Rental, Michelle (Alison Brie) confesses something to her brother-in-law Josh (Jeremy Allen White). For years, Michelle and her husband Charlie (Dan Stevens) have been the envy of their friends for having the best “how we met” story — they were both on ecstasy at a summer festival and started making out — but she tends not to share the full story. The truth is, Charlie was still dating his former girlfriend — their concert hookup was actually him cheating. “I randomly think of her sometimes,” Michelle admits. “She’s a nice person, she didn’t deserve that.”
Michelle shouldn’t feel too bad: In The Rental, all of the main characters are burdened by secret shames. And over the course of this off-kilter horror movie, all that collective guilt is going to come out. In fact, it’s almost as if the mysterious menace that descends upon them has been sent as punishment for their unspoken sins. All of us carry around things we’re not proud of — but rarely do we have to worry that an anonymous psychopath is going to murder us for those personal failings.
The Rental is the directorial debut of Dave Franco, who has said he based the idea on his own anxiety about staying in Airbnbs — this notion that we’ve all just accepted that it’s completely normal to live in a stranger’s home. The screenplay, which Franco co-wrote, introduces us to two Oregon couples: Michelle and Charlie, the very model of a “happy on the outside” marriage; and Mina (Sheila Vand) and Josh, a newish pair who have an easygoing rapport. Charlie and Josh are brothers — Josh is younger with a history of being a screw-up, including a stint in prison — and Charlie and Mina are business partners in an unspecified startup that seems to be about to take off. To celebrate, Charlie and Mina propose to their partners that they rent a place together out in the woods overlooking the ocean. The place seems amazing, so who cares if it’s a little pricey?
That setup feels like a very modern updating of a classic horror trope, where a bunch of horny teens go out into the wilderness to get hacked up by a serial killer. But The Rental indicates from the start that it’s going for something a little more intellectual than that. When we first meet Charlie and Mina — him sitting at the computer, her lovingly leaning on his shoulder, their faces close together — the immediate assumption is that they’re the couple. But when Josh enters the room, she quickly moves away and kisses her boyfriend. It’s too late, though: We now have it in our mind that maybe these characters are hiding things from one another. In horror films, secrets don’t stay secrets forever.
Most who watch The Rental, which is available on VOD starting Friday, will know going in that it’s a horror movie, but this is a particularly slow-burn one. The two couples arrive at the house, meeting Taylor (Toby Huss), the slightly menacing, probably racist middle-aged man who oversees the property. (Mina is convinced he rejected her rental request because she’s Middle Eastern, while he accepted Charlie’s because he’s white.) Taylor’s appearance raises the film’s level of unease, and so we wait for bad things to happen once he leaves and the foursome prepare for their weekend excursion. The seeds of disaster are soon planted — Josh’s dog goes missing, the couples decide to do drugs, the hot tub gets turned on and there’s a very occasional POV shot from outside the house looking in at the occupants — and, sure enough, trouble looms.
It would be poor form to reveal the exact details, but let’s just say that The Rental doesn’t turn into a slasher flick. Instead, it remains guided by its flawed characters’ behavior — specifically, the guilt and festering tensions that exist amongst the foursome. Josh confides in Michelle that he’s scared Mina’s too good for him and will soon dump his ass. Both of them notice how close Mina and Charlie are, but tell themselves that they’re just work spouses. As accomplished as Mina is, she’s triggered by Taylor’s passive-aggressive, racist belittling. And Charlie, despite having a pretty great life, projects an emptiness that’s quietly unnerving. (This is the moodier Dan Stevens of The Guest and Legion, not the zany guy from Eurovision Song Contest.)
Within the group, one bad decision leads to another — which then leads to an even worse decision. All the while, Franco hints that… something… might be out in the woods. But what’s affecting about The Rental is that you really don’t spend much time worrying about that unseen menace. Instead, you’re focused on these two couples, who end up doing a really good job of destroying themselves. Who needs a bogeyman when you’re your own worst enemy?
In some ways, The Rental recalls the work of Michael Haneke, the Austrian director who often crafts existential horror within his films, making the clammy mundanity of the everyday seem incredibly upsetting. Franco isn’t at that level, unfortunately, and it’s disappointing that he and co-writer Joe Swanberg (who often chronicles the unhappiness of couples) let their characters do progressively sillier things in response to what befalls them. Charlie and his cohorts go from being flawed to straight-up foolish, and as a result, it becomes harder to view The Rental’s horrors as a damning outward expression of their insecurities — instead, they start to feel arbitrary and forced.
What’s so powerful about guilt is the way it can eat you up inside. To the rest of the world, which doesn’t know the secret you’re carrying, nothing seems different, but for you, that knowledge is like a burning fire — or a cold chill down your back. There’s a kind of terror to it — the fear that you’ll be found out, or that you won’t be able to keep from confessing in order to unburden yourself — and it can feel like you’re being stalked every waking moment.
In other words, guilt is like a metaphorical horror-movie killer: You don’t know when he’s going to strike, but you can sense him getting closer. By grounding his debut in the banal realities of two discontent, well-to-do couples on a weekend getaway, Dave Franco exposes the daily terror of trying to live with the things that you’ve done. The real shame is that The Rental ends up being not quite as sharp as the blade coming for its characters’ throats.