The Rental

Dave Franco has carved out a successful career as an actor in movies like Now You See Me, Neighbors, and The Little Hours. Based on his directorial debut, The Rental, he may well have an equally successful career behind the camera. What's great about his work here is that thrillers of this sort often start off taut, then become absurd as they approach their conclusions. Franco avoids that, sticking to the tone and cranking up the tension a notch at a time without ever sacrificing plausibility.

The plot revolves around two couples – Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (the excellent Alison Brie), and Mina (Sheila Vand) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White) – who take a weekend trip to a vacation home they've jointly rented. Charlie and Mina are co-workers who have grown very close. Josh wonders if they've grown too close, but Michelle seems okay with it. To preserve the surprises, I won't say what happens next, except that a startling discovery about the house is made, and there's a possibility that the guy they rented it from, Taylor (Toby Huss in a subtly menacing performance), is up to something sinister.

The Rental works because it's character-centered, not shock-centered. The blurred-line relationship between Charlie and Mina is smartly explored. Although they consider their friendship platonic, we can see they get something from one another that they don't get from their partners – a kind of shared creative fulfillment. That dynamic is central to the scary sections of the plot, as the stickiness of being too connected is what sets the chaos in motion. Stevens and Vand are terrific in creating a believable dynamic that makes us empathize with these people, even in their less likable moments.

Written by Franco and Joe Swanberg, The Rental introduces some cool twists to its central scenario. When the terror begins, for example, one of the characters is in a state that renders them unable to function normally. Suspense builds because we fear for that person, while simultaneously realizing that the group is one down when it comes to protecting themselves. I also liked the way the movie has a subtext about racism. Mina, the only person of color in the group, confronts Taylor about the fact that he claimed the house was unavailable when she wanted to rent it, yet rented it immediately to Charlie. The film continually suggests that prejudice may play some role in the terror that unfolds. Incorporating elements like these makes The Rental much smarter than the average thriller.

My concern watching the film was that it would botch the ending. Thankfully, that doesn't happen. Franco maintains control, delivering some intense scenes and mixing in a dose of black humor. He doesn't betray the vibe The Rental has carefully established by going to crazytown. The manner in which the story resolves itself progresses naturally from everything that precedes it, leaving us with a harrowing implication.

With all-around good performances, compelling themes, and an ever-increasing sense of eeriness, The Rental easily ranks among the year's best genre films.

out of four

The Rental is rated R for violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.