The “cabin in the woods” is such a horror-movie cliché that when somebody finally got around to making a movie about horror-movie clichés it was literally called The Cabin in the Woods. It’s a title that’s at once dully generic and satirically specific, evoking the ethos of a hundred Evil Dead clones while hinting that all of those dark, winding forest roads lead to a dead end. Whatever the ultimate upshot of Joss Whedon’s foray into post-Tarantino postmodernism, The Cabin in the Woods dropped a gauntlet in the direction of genre filmmakers hawking fish-in-a-barrel scenarios. Call it the last grindhouse on the left.
Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, does not try to reinvent the wheel that The Cabin in the Woods imagined as an endlessly reiterative loop. It’s a thriller made inside a certain tradition rather than attempting to exist outside of it; Franco is playing the game, not changing it. The Rental is about a group of attractive, monied 20-somethings decamping to a remote location for a bit of escapist fun: not a cabin in the woods, but a deluxe cottage on the water. Instead of playing with clichés, the film—cowritten by Franco and the prolific lo-fi auteur Joe Swanberg—clings to them with an iron grip. Its title, meanwhile, has a different and less intentional resonance than Whedon’s playfully predictable moniker; releasing a movie called The Rental directly to VOD, even in the context of COVID-19, is all but asking to be written off in online headlines as disposable. The real question is whether Franco’s modest, streamlined exercise can surpass these lowered expectations.
Mostly, it does. The Rental holds up pretty well against two coincidental, contemporary examples released in the past few weeks: David Koepp’s anguished psychological thriller You Should Have Left, starring Kevin Bacon as a family man haunted by personal demons as well as the curiously non-Euclidean geometry of his Welsh vacation home; and Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, a movie about college sweethearts contending with a mysterious virus during a seaside getaway that is also an enthusiastic plunge into ankle-deep gore and Cronenbergian body horror.
Both You Should Have Left and The Beach House have their moments, mostly courtesy of Bacon’s superb performance in the former and Brown’s nifty knack for atmosphere in the latter, and yet they mutually err in showing their hands early. What elevates The Rental slightly above the competition is the genuine patience it shows in playing all the way through the predictable particulars of its setup, and the space Franco gives his actors to draw us in.
Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are the masterminds behind a hip internet-tech startup company with an open-flow office; in the film’s first scene, they’re shown basking in the throes of exhilaration about their company’s breakthrough, but their professional pride is ringed by something a bit more intimate. Brainy, wide-eyed Mina, who’s got a sleek wardrobe and a chipped shoulder, is dating Charlie’s himbo younger brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), a well-muscled, sweetly dim Lyft driver who radiates with fraternal love and jealousy for his older sibling. Charlie is dutifully if resentfully protective of Josh, and otherwise has the easygoing vibe of a man who’s used to getting what he wants, a quality put over the top by Stevens’s almost impossible handsomeness, which he weaponizes here in a more jagged way than with his adorable Russian pop star in Eurovision. Charlie’s wife, Michelle (Alison Brie), is a teacher whose self-awareness about her Type A tendencies doesn’t make them any less overbearing; her brisk, deceptively chaotic energy is right in Brie’s wheelhouse, and the actress gives an extremely skillful, funny performance.
To mark Charlie and Mina’s professional triumph, the two couples have booked a lavish, too-expensive Airbnb—the kind of millennial indulgence that lends itself to social media boasting via braggy tweets and cloying Instagram stories. But for all the trip’s ostensibly celebratory intentions, there are hairline fractures spreading in all directions. Josh is worried (not wrongly) that he’s not smart enough for Mina; Michelle is concerned that Charlie isn’t being nice enough to Josh. And Charlie is terrified—or maybe not—that he and Mina might be on the verge of an even deeper connection, and that he might be falling back into old patterns of womanizing.
While The Rental doesn’t put forth an explicit protagonist out of this flawed but photogenic quartet, it does zero in on Mina’s status as the only nonwhite character in the group. She suspects that she was rebuffed from booking the cottage because of her Middle Eastern surname, and that the owner accepted Charlie’s later bid only because he came across online as a standard-issue white dude. These complaints gain credibility when the proprietor of the rental turns out to be a shifty, borderline-MAGA type played by the ace character actor Toby Huss, last seen as a backwoods bad guy in the late Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust, a film with which The Rental shares a certain Trump-zeitgeist subtext. “I think about how the country is as divided as it’s ever been,” Franco told Nerdist. “No one trusts each other yet we trust in the home of a stranger simply because of a few five-star reviews online.”
Huss’s wary, baseball cap-clad Taylor is The Rental’s wild card, lurking at the edges of the story in a way just menacing enough to inflame Mina’s paranoia, while leaving the possibility open that he’s just an unpleasant bystander—a nosy, folksy racist bound by the online booking rules to vacate the premises and mind his own business. Mina’s inability to let go of Taylor’s smirking pileup of microaggressions creates tension in The Rental’s early scenes; Vand’s excellently pressurized performance is a study in the exhaustion of having to minimize one’s opinions to keep everybody else chill. The other three characters’ well-meaning attempts to placate her—starting with Michelle’s insistence on artificial relaxation via a score of MDMA—are rooted in a certain off-putting privilege, as if hiding out and forgetting about the world is a right rather than a vacation. For some viewers, the group’s collective sense of entitlement will hint at the need for a thorough filleting; the predatory POV shots indicating another presence (or presences) on the periphery of the action suggest that it’s just a matter of time.
The cowriting credit for Swanberg is interesting given the filmmaker’s status as a one-man cottage industry in the field of indie horror. Beyond his role in helping to launch the careers of Lena Dunham, Greta Gerwig, and the Duplass brothers back in the halcyon, mid-2000s days of mumblecore, he’s also contributed to the genre omnibuses V/H/S and XX and directed the self-reflexive behind-the-scenes comedy Silver Bullets (sort of the Cabin in the Woods of American indie-horror cinema). Swanberg’s well-established relationship to the video-saturated aesthetics of low-budget, 21st-century shockers figures into The Rental’s first big twist.
Franco’s direction in The Rental, meanwhile, isn’t remotely virtuoso; he doesn’t strain and preen the way his older brother, James, has during certain trips behind the camera. But as a talented actor with a gift for fitting into ensembles (recall his faux-woke high school villain in 21 Jump Street and lovely one-scene cameo in If Beale Street Could Talk), he understands how to let his actors move the scenes along instead of getting overly mechanical. Then, after the story’s machinery does take over, he stages some perfectly credible suspense sequences whose debts to past masters are relatively humble and unpretentious. While David Gordon Green stumbled in his Halloween remake/redux to replicate the peerless maneuvers of John Carpenter, The Rental eases into a sort of stylistic facelessness that matches its anodyne threat.
If viewed in a movie theater, the constant, shameless jump scares during the home stretch of The Rental would probably goose an audience into a state of happy anxiety, if not outright terror. Despite one nicely unexpected makeup design that briefly seems to take the film into entirely different generic territory (a solid strategic fake-out), The Rental is never as scary as it needs to be to get all the way over the top. (By contrast, The Beach House has a couple of legitimate what-the-fuck-is-that freak-outs.) As a showcase for its cast, though, it’s effective, and crucially, the script doesn’t cop out, and instead commits to a violent nihilism that accesses the same despairing, seen-it-all subtext of The Cabin in the Woods—minus, it should be said, Whedon’s sense of smug superiority. Instead of trying to make a point, Franco just makes his movie, and that’s just fine. It’s not a backhanded compliment to say The Rental is worthy of its title.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.