Horror movies, in particular slasher movies, are known for their efficiency. Introduce the soon-to-be-victims with some threadbare character traits, each having some a combination of obliviousness, stupidity, narcissism and hornyness, provide a remote setting where the victims can be seen with their negative character traits on display, then introduce a weapon-wielding maniac to mete out justice on the victims for being generally bad people. These movies put us in the position of rooting for the killer, because only he (sometimes she) can save us from spending one more minute with the victims, who are too annoying and oversexed for their own good.
Early slasher franchises (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) started out interestingly enough, only to devolve into wastelands of increasingly primitive cheap thrills. Slasher movies have evolved since their peak in the late seventies and early eighties. The Scream series added a meta awareness to the genre. Films like You’re Next, The Strangers, Don’t Breathe, Happy Death Day, Hush and The Cabin in the Woods added intelligence and creativity to the proceedings.
The Rental contains many of the same elements as earlier slasher films. The characters presented here, however, are not bad or annoying as the victims in the slasher films of yore. They are merely flawed human beings. They make bad decisions that don’t hurt anyone but themselves. Unfortunately the killer lurking nearby has put a lot of thought and preparation into his enterprise. He leverages the undeserved trust the victims give their AirBnB rental to his advantage. He’s a killer, but a killer who deviously plans for his next victims like a professional.
If I were the CEO of a big hotel chain, I would make this movie a free VOD offering forever. I can’t think of a piece of advertising for Hilton more than this movie. “Why rent a strangers house, where you can be hacked to bits by a maniac who’s watching your every move? Come to Hilton, where the towels may be rough from constant bleaching, and the breakfast bar may be underwhelming, but at least you’ll be safe within your own room!”
The screenplay for The Rental should be taught in film school. The film is 88 minutes, but it’s shorter than that because there are several minutes of credits. The movie economically introduces all of its characters, and we immediately learn the character flaws that will ultimately lead to their doom. Dan Stevens plays Charlie, a tech wizard of some kind that is on the verge of taking his company to the next level. His right-hand person is Mina (Sheila Vand), and the two of them have a very comfortable work relationship. When they are shown together, they seem to be a couple. That is, until Charlie’s brother Josh walks in on them. Josh (Jeremy Allen White) is handsome but is an underachiever with a history of violence. Charlie tells his wife Michelle (Allison Brie) that Josh was in prison for a violent encounter while in college, and works now as a part-time Lyft driver.
While Charlie and Josh are friendly, their relationship has some friction. Josh insists on taking his dog with him, even though the rental agreement states “no pets”. Later, Charlie and Josh wrestle, and Josh wins. It is clear that Josh has a chip on his shoulder, even though his girlfriend Mina is hot and his brother is generally supportive of him
Mina seemingly always wants to pick a fight when she feels wronged. She is irked that her request for the same rental was declined while Charlie’s was approved. She suspects it is because of her Middle-Eastern name. She confronts Taylor, the property manager, about it, and he denies seeing her application. Taylor comes off as a bit racist, which will lead the others to incorrectly assume he is behind Josh’s dog’s disappearance.
Michelle is very trusting of Charlie, and even approves of his and Mina’s close work relationship. She’s “glad he has someone to share it with”. Clearly, her naivete will be her undoing.
In a sign that the War on Drugs has changed, Michelle has brought a bag of MDMA (“Molly”) along for the trip. (Marijuana must be so passe these days.) She declines to take it on the first night of their stay, because she wants to be fully rested for the hike planned for tomorrow. The other three take Molly and dance around like crazy fools. Later, after Josh falls asleep, Charlie and Mina have sex in the shower. Following morning is filled with awkward glances at the table, and Charlie and Mina, equal parts hung-over and ashamed, decline the hike. Josh, unaware of what happened between his brother and his girlfriend last night, goes on the hike with Michelle. While hiking, Josh, in a move I believe intended to take his much more successful brother down a notch, tells Michelle that Charlie typically began seeing his next girlfriend before breaking up with his current one. I’m not sure why this bothers Michelle so much, since she is married to Charlie now. This information does force Michelle to see her husband in a different light, though. Clearly he is a ladies man, a trait that may or may not have ended with their marriage.
From here on out, events quickly spiral out of control. Josh’s dog goes missing, and he suspects Taylor of taking his dog. Mina suspects Taylor of planting a camera in the showerhead, capturing her rendezvous with Charlie for personal usage. Taylor’s perceived racism and general “bite me” personality has made him a suspect for both unfortunate events. At this point, the message in The Rental appears to be that each character’s flaws will lead to their downfall. While that basically is true, an extremely insidious plot twist takes that notion to a whole different level.
After an angry Mina confronts an appropriately confused Taylor about the camera in the showerhead, Josh beats Taylor to a pulp. While the four try to figure out what to do, another person enters the property and kills Taylor. This other person has not been seen on screen yet. All along I, as had the group of friends, had assumed that the person tormenting them was Taylor. Not so! From here on out, the four try to cover up Taylor’s murder, which they mistakenly believe Josh is responsible for, only to be killed by the stalker, one by one, with brutal efficiency. What began as a story about how prejudice and animosity leads to bad decisions morphs into a take on The Most Dangerous Game. The deftness of the shift is done incredibly well. Dave Franco, in his first feature length directorial effort, has done an excellent job here. The Rental is lean, mean and highly effective.
The ending and credits show how the stalker was able to carry out his devastating plan on the four. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it shows how basic surveillance techniques can be used against us in terrifying ways. With an AirBnB, we implicitly trust whomever we are renting from, even though that person is a private citizen, with the opportunity to bug the property however he may want to. This has been an ongoing problem for AirBnB. Search for “AirBnB hidden camera” for a list of incidents, where any of them could have been the source of inspiration for The Rental. In the end, we never learn who the stalker is, but I have a suspicion we’ll see him again soon. Dave Franco has said that he already has ideas for a sequel. I hope that comes to fruition! Highly recommended.