THE RENTAL movie poster | ©2020 IFC

THE RENTAL movie poster | ©2020 IFC

Rating: R
Stars: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss
Writers: Dave Franco & Joe Swanberg, story by Dave Franco & Joe Swanberg & Mike Demski
Director: Dave Franco
Distributor: IFC Films
Release Date: July 24, 2020

 THE RENTAL is the kind of thriller that teases the audience. For a good while, there are enough clues, both actual and red herrings, to keep us guessing as to what’s going on here. Will this turn out to be a saga of out of control jealousy? Is the caretaker up to something sinister? Is it both, or neither?

We see a large, isolated house atop coastal cliffs in California. The view is breathtaking. Work partners Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) think this rental, advertised online, would be a great place to celebrate their recent professional triumph for a weekend with their significant others. Charlie is married to the supportive Michelle (Alison Brie), while Mina lives with Charlie’s under-achieving younger brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White).

There’s friction before the group even get going. Josh insists on bringing his and Mina’s cute French bulldog Reggie along, even though the rental specifies no pets. Then Mina reveals that she applied for the rental one hour before Charlie did. Her application was turned down; his was accepted. Racism/Islamophobia seems to be the culprit.

On arrival, the group meet handyman Taylor (Toby Huss), who says his brother is the actual owner. He gives off possibly creepy vibes, and won’t respond when Mina asks about the rental applications.

At first, this does seem like an idyllic retreat. Then we learn about Josh’s inferiority complex and Charlie’s romantic patterns. And then a discovery is made that changes the dynamic.

Dave Franco, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Swanberg from a story they crafted with Mike Demski, makes his feature directorial debut with THE RENTAL. The film is handsome and atmospheric, and the performances are naturalistic without being so low-key that we lose interest. Zand is an easy focal point, sympathetic and credibly brainy. Stevens is properly magnetic and mercurial. Huss is excellent as always.

There are some issues that feel like they should be addressed by the script. It would be one thing if they factored into the mystery, but since they turn out not to be plot points, we wind up feeling cheated for investing in the answers. We don’t find out exactly what field Mina and Charlie are in, but since the work itself seems to be meaningful to them, it ought to at least be mentioned to us. Likewise, Josh really doesn’t seem to be a good match for Mina, unless what she wants is the male version of a stay-at-home wife. These aren’t big deals, but because nobody says anything about them, we keep waiting for revelations that don’t arrive.

THE RENTAL also loses a point for minimizing poor pet ownership behavior. Poor Reggie is left in the car in direct sunlight with the windows up, and is then forgotten about outside in a wooded area. Nothing bad winds up happening to the dog, which is unlikely to be the case is comparable real-world situations.

Then there’s a third-act twist that upends our expectations of where the film is going. On the plus side, it’s surprising and unpredictable. It’s difficult to discuss the downside, no matter how vaguely, without getting into spoiler territory.

THE RENTAL is well-made (apart from some crew reflections that show up in an early scene with lots of glass), ominous and suspenseful. It’s seldom actually scary, though, and by the end, it seems like it ought to be.

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