In film, voyeurism is only as interesting as the person committing the act. Whether it’s Jeff (James Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the psychotic Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, or the lonely Sy (Robin Williams) in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, the character who’s watching anchors the narrative. Because voyeurism films are psychological to a fault, they often lead to rich character studies by asking why the antagonist or protagonist is spying on someone. Because of a paraphilia? Because of a latent trauma? Or are they just nosy?
The Rental, the directorial debut of actor Dave Franco (Now You See Me, The Disaster Artist) sidesteps those questions to its own detriment while following two couples renting a lavish coastal home for the weekend. The dialogue-heavy script, written by Franco and Joe Swanberg (Netflix’s Easy), positions The Rental as a character drama rather than a prototypical thriller. As the story unfolds, it reveals simmering tensions between the couples, due to their respective secrets.
For instance, the term “work couple” is too innocent a phrase to describe the bond between Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand). Their first appearance together sees Mina hanging on Charlie’s shoulder with the intimacy of an actual wife rather than a colleague. Charlie’s real wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), is perturbed by her husband’s closeness with his work wife. Mina, on the other hand, is in a relationship with Charlie’s tumultuous brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), a Lyft driver and college dropout hoping to settle down after serving time for beating a guy nearly to death outside of Josh’s frat house.
Economically crafted at 89 minutes, The Rental gets some minor complexity from Franco’s timid peering into the topic of discrimination. When booking their Airbnb, Mina, whose full name is Mina Mohammadi, found her reservation denied. But when Charlie tries, he’s accepted. Charlie dismisses any hint of discrimination, explaining how everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt. Mina’s suspicions are deepened when she meets their host, Taylor (Toby Huss), a passive-aggressive good ol’ boy with major creeper vibes. Though Franco and Swanberg position Taylor as the antagonist, the film never returns to the idea of him being racist.
Still, other signs cause suspicions among the couples. When Michelle unpacks, she notices a patch of dirt, almost in the form of a shoeprint, on her bed. While Josh plays with his dog — he brought his bulldog even though the listing prohibited pets — he discovers a key-coded door underneath the home. The situation has Michelle questioning her marriage with Charlie. They met at a debaucherous, ecstasy-filled party and soon began dating, though he was still in a relationship with his previous girlfriend at the time — a pattern for him. Ecstasy comes into play again during the couples’ weekend stay, causing Mina to make a major mistake. When she discovers a camera hidden in her showerhead, capturing her blunder, the simmering secrets at the heart of Franco’s character drama boil over into suspense.
Franco further builds tension through Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ biting score and Kyle Reiter’s patient editing. Cinematographer Christian Sprenger uses low-key lighting to demonstrate the characters’ unawareness, but the effect feels too on-the-nose. Costume design and production decorators also add not-so-subtle odes to horror’s past, like the reliance on a particular shade of orange (The Shining) and the property’s lamps (The Exorcist). As a director, Franco also understands composition, employing a deep depth of field to show the group’s slow fracturing.
[Ed. note: The rest of this review contains minor spoilers for The Rental.]
Unfortunately, The Rental unravels. Rather than building on the characters’ moralistic inequities, and relating them to their unknown voyeurist, Franco lets the final act wither under the weight of facile jump scares and an unimaginative killer who apes one of horror’s iconic maniacs. The deaths during the closing scenes provide zero resolution, because Franco carries them out so apathetically. We’re never sure whether this voyeur is an avenger stalking corrupt people, or a random psychopath. For instance, if there’s no meaning or purpose behind his choice of victims, why did he accept Charlie’s request for the booking, but not Mina’s? Does he derive any pleasure from murder?
Though voyeurism films are psychological to a fault, Franco isn’t interested in the subconscious. Instead, his narrative is compelled by tawdry workplace affairs, heavy-handed jump scares, and Airbnb horror stories. While he shows some promise as a director, the screenwriting in The Rental required some more looking over.
The Rental arrives in drive-in theaters and on digital rental platforms on July 24.