It begins with a click. The Rental’s Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are just looking for a weekend getaway, a place to celebrate a business milestone with their romantic partners: his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), and her boyfriend, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who’s also Charlie’s brother. The place they find looks like a dream, secluded in the woods, right by the ocean, and if it’s a little pricey, well, the deal Charlie and Mina just signed is going to make them a lot of money. On the ride out, Mina wonders if her Arabic surname explains why her booking was rejected an hour before Charlie’s was accepted, and a comment from the man who hands them the keys (Toby Huss) suggests that she’s right. But they’ve come all this way, and it’s only a couple of nights—besides, look at that view.
The Rental, which is the first movie directed by the actor Dave Franco, is a noteworthy entry in the bourgeoning minigenre of Airbnb horror movies, largely for how little spin it puts on the concept. The house Charlie rents isn’t a portal to supernatural torment like the one in this summer’s You Should Have Left, just a place with a hot tub and a few too many rooms for the foursome to get into trouble in. In an ordinary year, its release date would sync up with vacation season, but with travel options limited to the domestic and the length of a car ride (preferably without pee breaks), the way it exploits the unease of slipping into the home of a person you’ve never met feels especially acute.
Franco and his co-scenarists, Joe Swanberg and Mike Demski, let the tension build naturalistically, to the extent that if it weren’t for the eerie music and sound design you might think you’d stumbled into the wrong movie, maybe some sobersided drama about two couples whose illusions unravel over a weekend in a country house. A stray comment from Josh awakens doubts in Michelle’s mind about her husband, and some conveniently dropped ecstasy lowers the barriers between Mina and Charlie, business partners who seem closer to each other than they are to their significant others. (Franco deliberately wrong-foots us by introducing the pair with Mina peering over Charlie’s shoulder to check out the listing, her head nestled on his shoulder until Josh walks into the room.) It’s all engaging, if not exactly engrossing, like eavesdropping on the couple at the next table back when tables were close enough to hear. The way Mina’s friends fold when she confronts the homeowner about his racism is a fissure the movie could have stood to explore in greater detail instead of just letting it drop, but Franco doesn’t push his actors into being too emphatic, which lets them, especially A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s Vand, time and space to breathe, rather than always needing to ratchet up tension or shove the plot forward.
Eventually, the mumblecore hangout vibe is disrupted by the arrival of a creepy antagonist, although by then the movie is so close to over that it feels like Franco is trying to beat the clock rather than smoothly change course. (Unlike the Swanberg/Duplass brothers joint Baghead, The Rental doesn’t have the wit to treat its abrupt tonal shift as a gag.) The last-act twist might strike a few viewers as a bold departure, but there’s so little urgency to any of it that Franco might as well have been doing it as a directing-class exercise, a calling card for whatever movie he really wants to make. Compare it with Romola Garai’s Amulet, another first feature by an actor that arrives this weekend, which slams into action with a blood-red title card in Gothic fonts and echoing chants that turn your head inside out. Or Natalie Erika James’ Relic, from earlier this month, which is also about secrets spilling out in an unfamiliar house. Those are movies their creators had to make, stories that had been building up inside them for who knows how long, while Franco’s feels like the kind of thing you’d do if you had talented friends and a few days to kill. It’s the Airbnb of movies, a brief stay with nice scenery that leaves things just where it found them.