I didn’t think James Franco’s baby brother Dave could make a film that might be better than most of his older sibling’s works, yet joyfully here we are. Although not a spectacularly engaging thriller throughout its entirety, “The Rental” is a cozy reserved slasher film that’s more occupied with intelligent slow-building suspense than cheap jump scares. When starting, I wasn’t invested in the movie. I thought the characters were indiscernible, the plot was going to be predictable, and I was waiting for everyone to get killed already. When the tail end of the second act came rolling around, I was intrigued to discover where everything would go. No wheels are reinvented, but cliches are primarily avoided in a gratifying slow burn of a wise conclusion.
The premise is familiar. Two couples spend a weekend together in a secluded lakehouse. What could go wrong? All the devices are set for a recognizable trap where I expected Jason Vorhees to pop up from around the corner at any moment to deliver the glory kills. To my enjoyment, such a cheap mechanic doesn’t come to fruition. Picking apart his victims like pawns on a chessboard, Dave Franco constructs a diabolical puzzle game where every kill is intricately calculated.
He slowly plays off on everyone’s paranoia, turning each person against one another. In particular, Josh (Jeremy Allen White) is an ex-convict trying to get his life back together. It’s clear something is wrong with him other than what has been told to the audience. He’s continually keeping his rage at bay through guilty self-deprecation. What better way to toy with an emotionally unhinged man than to feed off of his insecurities? To further playoff everyone’s fears, the mystery man makes each couple wonder if they are cheating on each other by setting up a camera in the shower that’s easily discoverable.
The enigmatic antagonist’s diabolical schemes are estimated to a degree of believability, making us think that perhaps anyone who’s a bit of a handyman could pull off his work. No death feels like a cheap blood bath; everyone’s lunacy is valid. Watching each person turn towards a state of mania is disturbingly enjoyable to witness, as I didn’t know how things were going to play out in the end. The cast’s descent into madness is strangely satisfying to view. Perhaps it’s because Mr. Franco intends to have emotionally invalid protagonists played amongst a purposeful tedious first act.
When introduced to the cast initially, nothing is unique about them. Aside from Charlie’s (Dan Stevens) crazy ex-convict brother Josh, there’s Michelle (Allison Brie), a straightforward girl who thoroughly enjoys dipping molly. And Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s married to Josh. Mina is plot fodder, so saying more about her character would spoil the movie. The only thing the characters are used for is target practice. It’s not until the fighting starts that things get interesting. Where most horror films make us laugh or go “oh snap!” when someone gets killed, I rooted for the villain, wanting him to get away with it all. Not because of how annoying the characters were but because of how cunning his master plan was. All thanks to the film’s structure.
Where first irritated, I admired Franco’s construction of the narrative. Each element seems to be meticulously planned to differentiate “The Rental” from your typical Tubi slasher. We only get to know the characters in their purest form when placed under extreme stress. People are boring in real life when placed in a social setting. It’s not until you put a bomb from under the table with all the doors locked that everyone comes to life on screen. With each shot being held for a bit longer than usual, the movie asks for you to pay attention to its surroundings. What Dave Franco is doing is allowing the audience to applaud the perpetrator’s handy work subconsciously.
Allowing the film to take its time, not relying on a bombastic score, Franco respects his audience’s intelligence. Be patient with it; you’ll be rewarded like a sniper waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. Even with my admiration for its systematic approach, I wish there was some reason to be invested in these characters before the killing starts. What will make me want to root for or hate them? I want to feel something instead of marking my clock for act 2. Act one’s pace is so deliberate it’s unnecessarily cliched in what is otherwise a clever horror flick. I would like to see at least one slasher film that’s invested in human beings. I know many could say that’s an invalid criticism, maybe they’re right. For my money, I’d like a film of the genre that treats its characters like people, not one-dimensional targets.
With a picture of this nature, the subdued approach could benefit from some depth in its players. Everything else works on a level that isn’t preoccupied with being a campy B grade bloodbath. So take advantage of what you’ve accomplished so far, Dave. There’s enough promise in Mr. Franco’s directorial debut to perhaps make a horror film with this suggestion in mind. I see some success in “The Rental” if Dave Franco wants to re-explore this sort of moviemaking; perhaps he could semi go the Jordan Peale route? I hope to see some improved directorial works from the young man.