Stuck together in close quarters, usually at a remote house somewhere, a small group of people tell truths, play mind games, and watch their relationships (and lives) gradually unravel. It’s a genre as classic and variable as Polanski’s “Cul-de-Sac,” Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Peckinpah’s “The Osterman Weekend,” or Aronofsky’s “Mother!” And it almost always comes in one of two flavors: high-end psychodrama or low-end thriller.
The hooky thing about “The Rental,” the first feature directed by Dave Franco, is that in just 88 minutes the film exploits, and exhausts, more or less every possibility of the late-night-domestic-bull-session-in-hell pressure-cooker genre. It starts off as a shrewdly arresting four-hander about two couples spending a getaway weekend at a fabulous cliffside cottage along the Pacific Ocean — a kind of dark-and-stormy indie soap-opera noir on ecstasy. Then it evolves into a suspense drama of sex, lies, and (secret) videotape. There’s a murder, and therefore a corpse, at which point the film enters a Hitchcock zone of ordinary people scrambling to get away with extraordinary crime. The saga is then overrun by — yes — an omniscient masked slasher.
There’s some crafty artistry at work in “The Rental,” and also some fairly standard pandering, which feels like a violation of the movie’s better instincts. That said, most of it is skillful and engrossing enough to establish Franco as a director to watch.
Dan Stevens, with his slightly bland surface camouflaging moody undercurrents, plays Charlie, a successful tech wizard married to the sharp, conventional Michelle (Alison Brie). Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), is a ne’er-do-well with a hothead temper who’s dating Charlie’s business partner, Mina (Sheila Vand). Charlie and Mina have a close working relationship, maybe too close for their own good.
I staunchly believe that the term “mumblecore” should have been retired years ago, but to invoke it for convenience: What if one of the films lumped under that rubric — micro-scaled, hipster-generation dramas that dawdle at the pace of conversation — was also a sinister tale of forbidden love? It might look something like “The Rental.”
At the vacation house, the manager, Taylor (Toby Huss), is a prickly prole whose attitude teeters between friendly, creepy, and passive-aggressive. Is he the closet racist who rented the place to Charlie one hour after refusing it to the Indian-American Mina? When a tiny camera is found embedded in a shower head, Taylor suddenly looks like a secret perv. Of course, the drama is that Charlie and Mina, after their respective mates crash for the night, have given him a lot to gawk at. And a lot they don’t want seen.
Franco stages all of this with a conventional laidback flair. He’s working from a script he co-wrote with the mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg, and together they’ve created characters who are just interesting enough that, at times, I caught myself wishing that the film didn’t have to turn into a thriller, so that we could hang out with them in a way that’s more Edward Albee than Wes Craven. Franco, taking advantage of the real-estate-porn locale, knows just where to place the camera and how to keep naturalistic scenes skipping along, though what’s most impressive is the way he turns the sleaze and guilt of adultery into the film’s dramatic engine.
We’re on Charlie and Mina’s side (because movies tend to favor passion), but also not (because they tend to look askance at the thorny entanglements that emerge from lies). And the way the film heightens this ambiguity through the paranoia of surveillance is notably clever. So did “The Rental” really need a diabolical slasher? It did not. Except for one reason: to cut its drama together with the demon of commerce.