A nasty slow-burn of a slasher movie that aspires to do for Airbnbs what “Psycho” did for motels, Dave Franco’s “The Rental” serves up a thin slice of millennial folk horror that renders the modern anxieties of the gig economy with the grindhouse sadism they demand. Even in spite of its obvious nowness, this thing is such a lean, mean, and utterly merciless old school programmer that it might seem anachronistic if not for the fact that it’s being released onto many of the same drive-in screens that would have shown it 35 years ago.
Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic only strengthens the pull of a film about the friction between Americans’ eroding trust in each other, and our growing addiction to apps that depend upon the kindness of strangers. It’s always been a recipe for disaster, and “The Rental” has less interest in reconciling that tension than it does in watching it boil over into a brutal reminder that you should probably just never leave your house.
Franco’s script — co-written by Joe Swanberg, and carved within an inch of its life by his characteristically spartan approach to these things — couldn’t be much simpler. Charlie (horror movie cleanup hitter Dan Stevens) and Mina (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” breakout Sheila Vand) are touchy-feely work partners who decide to celebrate the launch of their new start-up with a weekend trip up the West Coast. What better way for these beautiful people to stress test the atomic-grade sexual chemistry between them than by spending a few nights at a cliffside, ocean-view Airbnb with both of their significant others?
Further complicating matters within this foursome is the fact that Mina’s boyfriend Josh happens to be Charlie’s burnout of a younger brother, a Lyft driver with a gentle soul and a violent past (he’s played by “Shameless” actor Jeremy Allen White, gradually churning a straightforward role into a quiet heartbreaker). Josh — maybe intuiting the general consensus that Mina is too good for him — gravitates to Charlie’s reserved girlfriend Michelle (Alison Brie), whose relationship is on shakier ground than she might realize. Throw in a baggy of MDMA, a potentially racist Airbnb host (Toby Huss), and a pug who isn’t allowed on the property and you’ve got enough trouble brewing even before you throw a homicidal maniac into the mix.
Franco turns the screws with care, the “Neighbors” and “Nerve” star more interested in establishing his basic genre bonafides than trying to become the next Ari Aster or Jordan Peele. The steely camerawork is patient without being pretentious, the (Oregon) locations are moody and evocative without endangering the film’s unfussy vibe, and the cast is able to flesh out their characters without saddling them with more pathos than this 80-minute shiver of a movie has time to unpack.
Aside from the occasional jolt (which are all the more effective because of how sparingly they happen), “The Rental” eschews cheap thrills in favor of something more unsettling, as the distrust these people have in their Airbnb host increasingly begins to reflect the distrust they have in each other. And given that Charlie and Mina bang in the shower before the end of the first night, it would seem that at least some of those suspicions are well-founded; if this movie has any kind of moral beyond “don’t get stabbed to death in a stranger’s home,” it might be “if you’re going to cheat on your romantic partner, don’t do it in the shower.” For one thing, there’s chafing to consider (and a real horror master would have considered it, Dave!). For another, there might be a camera hidden in the ceiling. It’s creepy enough that the host has access to the house while guests are staying there, but this is obviously a violation of a very different sort. And perhaps Mina and Charlie might have saved a few lives if they told the rest of the gang about what they’d found and everyone agreed to leave, but whoever was recording them now has their illicit liaison on tape, and they really don’t want to give him any reason to share it.
Mina negotiates this whole section with such convincingly two-faced desperation that it feels like both the character and the actress playing her could do just about anything. Josh, on the other hand, gets his chance to shine when the shit hits the fan, and White’s agonized turn as a well-meaning kid who can’t seem to do anything right only gets better during the stretches when most schlock-adjacent horror movies tend to sacrifice even their best actors at the altar of bad special effects. It helps that Franco transitions from character study to full-blown slasher with oodles of confidence and absolutely zero mercy, the first-time director serving up a sudden flurry of “look behind you!” moments that hit the spot even as they frustrate your interest in finding out who’s under the mask.
“The Rental” doesn’t really care. From the queasy flirtation of the first scene to the snuff film vibe of the closing credits, this movie is more interested in unlocking the everyday nightmares that lurk inside the gig economy than it is in creating some kind of iconic genre villain who you’d be able to recognize from the window of that nice lake house you’re staying at in early September. Sure, the host only has one-star reviews (“the wi-fi was reliable, but my brother was decapitated in the kitchen — would not recommend”), but you’ve been cooped up in your apartment since quarantine began, and if you don’t get out of the city soon you’re going to explode. Way too many people are selfish or stupid enough to think that public safety is infringing on their rights, your dad lied to you about wearing his mask out to dinner the other night, and you shudder when anyone even walks near you at the grocery store, but there’s a button on your phone that lets you live in someone else’s house for a few days — you’re not not gonna press it.
The ultimate reveal in “The Rental” is a let down for how little to do it has with the film’s premise or the app-based anxieties it triggers, but it still leaves you with the same unnerving sense that you might get from, say, living in a catastrophically incompetent country during the midst of a major contagion: In a modern world that requires us to place an unprecedented degree of trust in each other, few things are scarier than being reminded of what that really means.
IFC Films will release “The Rental” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, July 24.