The economical story follows two couples as they hit up a beachside Vrbo for a long weekend. Each duo is at a different point in their relationship: Buttoned-down Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Allison Brie) have settled into a mediocre marriage, although she harbors a few nagging doubts. Meanwhile, Charlie’s mercurial brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) is just trying to get his shit together, and sweet, strong Mina (Shelia Vand) might be his ticket to spiritual salvation. They arrive at this beautiful house, where they get the five-cent tour from Taylor (Toby Huss). Like all caretakers in all horror movies, Taylor alternates between being overly friendly and totally creepy. He puts off an icky, racist vibe, but everybody just shrugs and brushes past it.
Things spiral when the gang does a little Molly on their first night. This act sets off a chain reaction of bad, life-altering decisions, causing everyone to wake up in a fog of regret and dehydration. Before this hungover crew can piece their puzzle of shame together, some of them happen on a startling revelation: Their dream house has been wired for picture and sound. Somebody somewhere is watching, and undoubtedly has a boatload of compromising info. Was it Taylor, or someone else? Will this person act on what they’ve seen, or just let the group turn on each other?
Already, The Rental has raced right by most of its horror brethren. Actually, the tone and locale evoke the maestro of this kinda thing, Stephen King. Director Dave Franco (who also co-wrote with Joe Swanberg) does a great job of fleshing out the characters, all while slow-playing the horror game. What starts off as a tense character study eventually escalates into a full-blown melee.
All of the actors buy right into Franco’s vibe of muted spookiness. Stevens plays Charlie as the All-American dude who can’t decide whether he wants to be a decent human being or a total asshole. As Michelle, Brie (who is also Franco’s wife) is cheerful to the point of being alarming. Vand’s Mina represents our best hope for a hero in all this, until… Finally, anybody who’s seen White in the American version of Shameless knows what a gripping, volatile presence he can be.
The Rental might’ve been just another vanilla horror hootenanny, wherein a buncha good-looking people get turned into blood-stained meatballs. Instead, we see smart people think themselves right into a corner. And because these characters behave like actual residents of this planet and not some figment of a lazy screenwriter’s brain, I got involved in the story. This movie somehow avoids going thunk in the nearest dumpster, and that’s actually one of the biggest compliments I could ever pay it.
88 min. R.