At the very beginning of “The Rental,” actor Dave Franco’s feature directorial debut, the screen is filled with shots of a lovely coastline and a striking resort house nestled in the woods overlooking the sea. But right about the time a viewer might start thinking, “How beautiful,” a couple of bars of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ doomy, foreboding music remind us that beauty and pleasure are not on Franco’s agenda.
So go ahead and enjoy the view for a minute — certainly, the characters in the film written by Franco and mumblecore kingpin Joe Swanberg do. But neither the characters nor the audience should ever get comfortable, because there are lots of bad things waiting to happen in this intriguing but disjointed cross between an indie relationship drama and a horror film.
In a way, it makes sense that the IFC release was forced to have its premiere at a drive-in theater outside Los Angeles in mid-July, because in the end this is a twist on the kind of genre thriller that feels at home in those wide-open spaces. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, with most of the scares and shocks crammed into the last half hour or so, it strings an audience along and then delivers a darkly effective little gut punch.
The four people at the center of this tale are Charlie (Dan Stevens), a seemingly successful businessman; his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), another sensible type; Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), an ex-con working as a Lyft driver; and Josh’s girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand), who also happens to be Charlie’s business partner, a relationship that seems suspiciously close.
To celebrate an unspecified company triumph, Charlie and Mina decide to book an Airbnb weekend at the seaside house, where they arrive with a few suitcases and enough psychological baggage to ensure that things are going to get sticky. It doesn’t help that the man who shows up to check them in, a middle-aged guy named Taylor (Toby Huss), might as well have “CREEPY” stamped on his forehead, and is probably a racist to boot. (He initially declined the booking when it was made by Mina, who is of Middle Eastern descent, then accepted it when the request came from the all-American Charlie.)
So you’ve got two couples, some built-in sexual and personal tension, a little dog that they’ve smuggled in despite the no-pets rule, a remote house, a lot of alcohol, a baggie of ecstasy and a creepy caretaker — what could possibly go wrong?
For a while, perhaps surprisingly, not much. Oh, there’s some sparring between Charlie and Josh and a secret kiss between Charlie and Mina, but for a while Franco just lets everybody hang out in the woods. He drops little hints that they’re being watched and makes a point of having the fog roll in every night, but for almost an hour this is a quiet indie relationship drama served up with a side of impending doom.
It’s effective but not terribly exciting, but the situation is bound to change — which its about 50 minutes in, when a confrontation with Taylor turns violent. At that point, the indie drama grows pulpier and pulpier, although it remains relatively lean: the scares are there, but there’s more searching and talking and meandering than there is screaming and running.
Eventually, though, “The Rental” does come down to screaming and running and stumbling through the thick fog, just as you knew it would when you heard those first ominous chords at the beginning. And even after the tonal shift, there’s another twist that comes out of the blue and shifts the movie into completely different territory, pretty much making everything that came before it beside the point.
“The Rental” tries to do a lot of things and succeeds partway in most of them. But as a relationship drama it gets sidetracked and as a horror film it doesn’t go full gonzo, except perhaps in the emotional sense. It’s an entertaining hybrid, though, and it might make you feel a little better about losing out on your summer vacation this year.
“The Rental” opens in theaters and VOD on July 24.