Review: ‘The Rental’ (2020), starring Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White in “The Rental” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Rental”  (2020)

Directed by Dave Franco

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon and in California, the horror flick “The Rental” features a predominantly white cast (with one character of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  Two couples rent a cliffside vacation home for a weekend and find themselves spied on and stalked by a mysterious stranger.

Culture Audience: “The Rental” will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful yet formulaic slasher flicks that have better-than-average acting.

Alison Brie in “The Rental” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

It might not be a widely known fact, but the 2020 horror film “The Rental” (directed by Dave Franco) has a coincidentally similar plot to the 2019 horror film “The Rental,” directed by Tim Connolly. Both movies are about two men and two women who rent a house for a weekend, only to become targets of a deranged killer. (In Connolly’s “The Rental,” the house is in the mountains, while in Franco’s “The Rental,” the house is perched on a treacherous oceanside cliff.)

Franco’s “The Rental” has gotten more attention than Connolly’s “The Rental” because it’s Franco’s feature-film directorial debut, after he’s spent years as an actor best known for co-starring in movies such as “Neighbors,” “21 Jump Street” and “The Disaster Artist.” Franco isn’t an actor in “The Rental,” but he’s one of the producers, and he co-wrote the screenplay with independent film veteran Joe Swanberg.

“The Rental” doesn’t have an original concept—there have been numerous horror movies about a killer who goes after people in an isolated house—but the movie does have above-average acting talent in its very sparsely populated cast. The actors make the best out of their roles in a movie that starts out as a psychological drama and then ends up being a formulaic horror film.

In Franco’s “The Rental,” a sleek but isolated cliffside home in an unnamed Oregon city has been rented for a weekend so that two couples can celebrate a recent milestone. Ambitious alpha male Charlie (played by Dan Stevens) and his intelligent business partner Mina Mohamnadi (played by Sheila Vand) have just received a great deal of investor money (the movie doesn’t say how much) to fund their start-up company in northern California. (The movie also doesn’t say what is the company’s industry.)

Mina is dating Charlie’s troubled younger brother Josh (played by Jeremy Allen White), while Charlie is married to loving and supportive Michelle (played by Alison Brie, who is married to Franco in real life). They all live far-enough away in California from the rental house in Oregon, that their road trip takes several hours to get there.

The dynamics between these two couples are established early on in the story, so viewers know about the underlying tensions in the relationships. Before they go on their road trip, Charlie and Michelle discuss Mina and Josh’s fairly new romance. It’s not stated in the movie exactly how long Charlie and Michelle have been married, but they’ve been together for about five to eight years, based on conversations that happen later in the film.

In a private conversation in their bedroom, Michelle remarks to Charlie that she can’t believe she’s going on a vacation with Josh. Charlie makes a cynical remark that the relationship between Mina and Josh probably won’t last because Charlie thinks Josh and Mina are a mismatched couple. Michelle is more optimistic and says that Josh seems “motivated” now that he’s been dating Mina, whom she calls “the total package.”

Why is there all of this negativity about Josh? It’s because he’s been struggling to get his life together after being an aimless troublemaker. He got expelled from college for nearly beating a guy to death in front of a frat house, and Josh spent time in prison for this assault. Josh is currently working as a part-time Lyft driver while taking some night classes.

Michelle comments on how Josh’s romance with Mina seems to have changed him for the better: “I’ve never seen him like this. He really loves her. I think it’s sweet.” Charlie replies, “Of course he loves her. He hit the fucking jackpot.” And why does Charlie think Mina is such a great catch?

The opening scene of the film shows Charlie and Mina (who is the CEO of her and Charlie’s start-up company) in their office, looking at house rentals on the same computer. They are on a website that is not named, but it’s clearly a website that is like Airbnb, the popular online company that allows home owners to be their own real-estate agents in deciding which of the website’s registered members will get to rent out their homes. The cliffside house, which is Charlie and Mina’s first choice, is a little of out their price range, but Charlie and Mina decide to reward themselves by splurging on the rental.

Based on their comfortable body language with each other (they’re leaning in to look at the computer closely together) and based on how they’re talking, it would be easy to assume that Charlie and Mina are a couple. Does this mean there’s some sexual tension between Charlie and Mina? Of course there is. And maybe that’s why Charlie thinks Mina is too good for his younger brother Josh, who has a history of being an ill-tempered screw-up.

It seems that Josh is still a bit of a rebel who likes to break rules. When Charlie and Michelle go to pick up Mina and Josh for their road trip, they see that Josh has brought his French bulldog Reggie along for the trip, even though Josh knows that the house’s rental policy clearly states that pets aren’t allowed in the house. Charlie (who’s doing the driving, of course) immediately objects to the dog going on the trip.

However, Josh insists that the dog go with them, and he says that they can hide the dog until after the person handing them the house keys will leave. Because Charlie doesn’t want to waste time arguing about it, he lets Josh have his way, and the dog goes with them on the trip.

During the drive to the rental house, Mina comments that her application to rent the house was rejected, even though she has practically the same qualifications as Charlie, whose application was accepted immediately. She thinks that her Middle Eastern name had something to do with the rejection, but Charlie dismisses the idea.

“The Rental” has some obvious messages about racism, sexism and “white privilege” by showing viewers how Mina and Charlie have very two different perspectives on how they navigate through life, based on how people treat them. Mina is very aware that being a woman of Middle Eastern descent means that bigots will exclude her from opportunities and make negative assumptions about her, while Charlie is more likely to be given opportunities and a positive benefit of the doubt because he’s a white man.

The movie makes it clear that Charlie is someone who doesn’t like to acknowledge that “white privilege” exists, because that would mean admitting that he has an unfair advantage over people of color in many situations where he benefits from people who believe in white supremacy. Someone like Charlie gets uncomfortable thinking that opportunities and accomplishments might have come his way a lot easier than for people of color who are equally or more qualified than he is.

Therefore, when Mina brings up the likelihood that she was discriminated against, Charlie doesn’t really want to hear it. Mina tells everyone in the car that she was rejected for other rental applications too, whereas Charlie was not rejected. Charlie says to Mina that there were probably other reasons why she was rejected.

Mina’s suspicions about the discrimination grow even more when the two couples arrive at the house and meet the caretaker who will hand them the house keys. The caretaker’s name is Taylor (played by Toby Huss), a scruffy, middle-aged guy who mentions that his brother is the house owner who never lives there, but Taylor is the one who looks after the house and oversees the rentals.

When Charlie introduces everyone to Taylor and mentions that Mina is his business partner and is Josh’s girlfriend, the caretaker rudely comments to Mina, “How’d you get mixed up in this family?” When Mina asks Taylor what he means by that, he denies that he meant anything by it.

Mina is bothered by the subtle racism that she seems to have gotten from Taylor, so she tells Josh in a private conversation outside that she doesn’t feel comfortable giving their money to a racist. Josh convinces her that they might as well stay to enjoy their vacation as much as possible, since the rental was paid for already and they already made a long road trip to get there.

Later, Mina confronts Taylor in front of everyone, by asking him why her application was rejected and Charlie’s application was immediately accepted. Taylor looks uncomfortable and says he doesn’t remember her application. Mina then reminds Taylor of her full name, while he looks increasingly uncomfortable. Charlie is starting to look embarrassed, and he tries to diffuse the tension by indicating that he wants Mina to stop this line of questioning.

Mina then tells Taylor that she and Charlie have nearly identical qualifications, but the application from a white man (Charlie) was accepted, and her application was rejected. Taylor still won’t answer the question. Instead, he turns the conversation around and tells Mina that if she has a problem, she can cancel the rental. 

Taylor’s deflection is shady and manipulative, because Taylor knows that the rental is in Charlie’s name, and it’s pretty obvious that Charlie doesn’t want to cancel the rental agreement or cause any arguments with Taylor. Mina also knows that the other people in the group don’t want to cancel the rental agreement, so she has no choice but to let the matter go.

This heated conversation between Mina and Taylor is meant to exemplify how people who try to confront issues of discrimination are often “shut down” and labeled as “difficult” by people trying to divert attention away from the real issues. Meanwhile, people who aren’t directly affected by discrimination, but know about it, often won’t speak up and will act like they want the issue to just go away—as exemplified by how Charlie, Josh and Michelle do nothing to come to Mina’s defense.

Before he leaves the two couples to have the house to themselves, Taylor shows that he’s not only a racist but he’s also a creep when he mentions that there’s a telescope they can use in the house, in case anyone wants to be a Peeping Tom. Taylor says it in a joking manner, but his tone of voice indicates that he’s only half-joking.

After getting settled in, the two couples go for an evening walk on the beach. When they come back to the house that night, they see that someone (presumably Taylor) set up the telescope in the living room while the two couples were away.

Mina immediately expresses discomfort that Taylor can come and goes as he pleases while they’re staying at the house. But the other people in the group act as if she’s being a little too paranoid and “difficult,” so Mina is made to feel once again that she’s in the minority.

“The Rental” is written in such a way that the entire movie can be viewed as a social commentary about peer pressure and how failing to speak up and report problems—for the sake of pretending that everything is okay and going along with a group mentality—can ultimately be dangerous to someone’s well-being. There’s also social commentary about power dynamics and rivalries between men, women and siblings and why people keep certain secrets.

In one scene, Michelle and Josh are having a private conversation while they’re hiking in the woods. It’s revealed in this conversation that Michelle is a lot more insecure about Charlie and Mina’s relationship than she would like to publicly admit. Charlie clearly admires Mina’s intellect and ambition, but Michelle doesn’t have those same qualities, so Michelle feels that Mina is giving Charlie a type of emotional fulfilment that Michelle, as his wife, can’t give.

It’s never stated in the movie if Michelle works outside of her home or not, but it is made clear that she has nothing to do with Charlie’s start-up business and doesn’t help him make any decisions about the company. Michelle’s insecurities are fueled when Josh divulges some information about two of Charlie’s former girlfriends whom Charlie dated before Charlie met Michelle.

The movie also has a not-so-subtle message about invasion of privacy and the type of trust that people willingly hand over to strangers in a house-rental situation that was arranged online. The trust issues go both ways for the renters and the house owners. And when these transactions are done online, where people can write relatively anonymous reviews about their rental experience, there might be a false sense of security that things will be completely safe.

Not long after getting settled in at the rental house, Mina and Josh find a guest house, which has a locked door on a lower-deck level. The door has a key-code lock. What’s behind the door? It’s revealed in the movie whether or not what’s behind the door is relevant to the story.

Meanwhile, some Ecstasy-fueled partying in the house and some hidden surveillance result in a chain of events that bring on the horror. It’s enough to say that the couples in the house are being stalked and spied on, and there is some bloody mayhem that ensues.

“The Rental,” which has a lot of scenes that take place at night, certainly brings the right atmosphere to the movie, as things get more sinister as the story unfolds. The abundance of fog can be explained by the fact that this story takes place mostly in a cliffside house near a treacherous ocean. And the film’s musical score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is a definite asset in the movie’s most effective thrilling scenes.

However, a lot of horror fans might not like that it takes so long (about two-thirds of the movie) for “The Rental” to get to any suspenseful action. Most of the film is really a character study of the increasingly tense relationships between Charlie, Michelle, Mina and Josh. Because the dialogue is realistic, the actors are well-cast, and the acting is better than what’s in an average horror movie, it’s worth the wait to get to the scenes in the movie where the characters are in real danger.

“The Rental” director Franco shows promising talent for telling a good story, but in the end, not much of it is very original. In fact, the least original part of “The Rental” is the murder spree, which has been seen and done in many other horror movies. Although “The Rental’s” characters are engaging and believable (Vand and Brie give the best performances), the action scenes are very formulaic.

People who expect a slasher flick to have the first killing happen within the first 15 minutes of the movie will probably be bored or disappointed by “The Rental.” Anyone who sees this movie has to be willing to sit through a lot of realistic relationship drama before getting to the over-the-top and predictable horror violence.

IFC Films released “The Rental” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 24, 2020.