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Simon Read [Celluloid 07.23.20] horror thriller

This debut feature from Dave Franco (co-written with Joe Swanberg) is a horror-thriller concerning a group of friends who rent an upscale villa by the coast, getting far more than they bargained for in the process. A weekend of hiking, drinking and partying soon gives way to paranoia, tension and eventual violence. Although the trailer gives away much of the plot, I'll keep this review relatively spoiler-free.

The first thing to say about The Rental is that it looks impressive. It's often a concern when an actor turns their hand to film-making that they'll botch it and turn out something slapdash or second-rate, but it must be said that Franco has a good eye for composition and, along with his cinematographer Christian Sprenger, has crafted a fine looking film with solid performances and moments of genuine suspense. It's also very welcome to see a film of this kind populated not by horny teens or dumb college students, but rather a group of adults resolutely in their mid-30s - professionals who take life seriously and expect life to treat them in kind.

The group in question, two couples, consisting of brothers Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and their respective girlfriends Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are all close friends. Charlie and Mina run an unspecified but highly successful business venture together, and it's telling that their first scene has us wrongly assuming that they're a couple. Before the weekend vacation even begins we register the sexual tension between Charlie and Mina, while noting that Josh (the slacker of the group) acknowledges Mina as being way too good for him. Michelle trusts Charlie implicitly, but events lead her to suspect he's not the saintly boyfriend she'd assumed he was.

And so they arrive at The Rental where they meet the creepy caretaker (Toby Huss - visibly enjoying his role as Harbinger-of-Doom) who shows them around this magnificent house, mutters some "Y'all from the city, huh?" bluster, and promptly leaves them to it. From the get-go Mina is unhappy; she had initially applied for the house online and been rejected, while Charlie, having the same star-rating on his online profile, but being a white male, was later immediately accepted. Did the owner reject Mina due to her Middle-Eastern heritage? The others downplay her concerns of racism (how supportive) and encourage her to forget about it and relax.

It soon becomes apparent that the group are not alone, and from here the film takes a few twists and turns, relationships become strained and the group fractures as tensions rise. Mina finds a hidden camera in the shower. Josh's dog goes missing...

The best thing about The Rental is Franco's patience in allowing the characters' personalities and flaws to emerge almost organically - he is in no rush to push us into a traditional stalk-and-slash chiller, but rather line up events and let the dominoes fall when the time is right. It is genuinely refreshing to see a film about grown-ups discussing their relationships as things slowly fall apart, and the first act of the film is stronger for this.

Unfortunately - and it really is unfortunate - the final act of the film unravels badly, and much of this good work is undone. When the proverbial hits the fan, the characters lose any sense of logic and when the Big Baddie is revealed it is such a cliched disappointment that it blows all tension out of the water. The final note on my pad reads: "Is that really it?" I had hoped for something more original. Why bother to create nuanced characters, only for them to become interchangeable pawns at the last minute?

It feels like The Rental is a film of two halves. One is mature, restrained and even quite humorous (Charlie and Josh joke around pretending to be 'dude bros' in one memorable scene of banter), and the other a pedestrian rip off of Halloween - because we really needed another one of those. To the film's credit, it maintains a good pace and never feels dull, and the film-makers manage to provide some thrills without resorting to gore (virtually absent, despite the subject matter).

I applaud Franco (I'm applauding him right now from my living room) for trying to invest something different into the old trapped-in-the-house genre, but there were so many different ways to end it without resorting to such tiresome and well-worn tropes. Additionally, we have to ask exactly how the sinister antagonist knew what was going to happen outside of his direct control. As the film progresses events become all too convenient, even contrived, to suit their purpose - a post credits scene serving only to emphasize this for no particular reason.

Far from a complete dud, and worth watching for some good writing and strong performances, The Rental left me wanting more, but at the same time looking forward to seeing what Franco gets up to next.

The Rental is available in select drive-ins, theaters and on demand on Friday, July 24.

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