There’s something to be said about a lack of sentimentality in a horror film. That doesn’t mean we can’t still have sympathy for the victims’ plight—the fact that they’re human beings provides the space for it regardless of who they are or what we know about them. We care because we see ourselves in their shoes. They embody our fear rather than provide an object for us to fear for. Whether or not they suffer when fate’s hand comes down is therefore quite often a moot point. Our sympathy won’t increase because we watch them scream as they try to crawl to safety. Their vocal demise doesn’t render their loss more profound; it actually risks an unwelcome shift towards comedy. We’re frightened most by death’s cold inevitability.
So we feel the quiet moments Dave Franco provides at the start of his directorial debut The Rental. We feel the rage emanating from Mina (Sheila Vand) as she’s forced to listen to the man (Toby Huss‘ Taylor) who refused to book the spacious vacation home she’s standing in to a Persian woman, but had no problem giving it to her white business partner Charlie (Dan Stevens) shortly thereafter. We anticipate a future confrontation thanks to hard stares and a few lines of dialogue dripping with accusation. Is Taylor a racist? Probably. Is he a murderer? That’s what we’re here to discover. And by presenting this “them versus him” scenario straight away, we can settle in and await the collision without thinking there might be more going on.
This is crucial to Franco and Joe Swanberg‘s script (Mike Demski helped with the story) because it allows us to be in the moment at all times. How are the actions on-screen going to effect what comes later? What’s the fallout going to be from Charlie’s brother and Mina’s boyfriend Josh (Jeremy Allen White) bringing his dog in direct violation of the house’s rental policy? What’s going to unfold when Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) turns in for the night despite the other three staying up to do drugs? How malicious is Taylor’s disgust for these city folk once his judgmental glares turn to first-person spying from deep in the woods? By presenting these questions within this sealed environment, the rising tension has no escape valve.
The filmmakers can therefore come at us from all directions within this invasion of privacy nightmare or use all but one as a distraction from that single truth. They can create drama internally as while as externally by feeding into the possibility of something that’s alluded to from frame number one: an affair. Charlie and Mina are very close professionally and both Michelle and Josh feel discomfort and jealousy whenever the former duo’s interactions make certain that the latter pair know it. Seclusion, drugs, and hot tubs can easily become a lethal enough combination to push the specter of Taylor and his “Peeping Tom” potential right out of our minds. Or everything might go hand-in-hand as the victims supply their assailant precisely what he needs to destroy them.
Race, betrayal, voyeurism, and hedonism are never far from view as the walls begin to close in on these two couples. They’re fish in a barrel with a host they cannot trust waiting just over the ridge—a man Mina has already provoked and either exacerbated an already present anger or activated some through the shame of having his profiling exposed. The last thing they need to do then is risk arming themselves with life-altering secrets about each other too, but they ultimately do it anyway to subsequently trap themselves in a corner with no means of recourse. Because if the man they think is spying on them is doing exactly that, he now holds the cards. Things suddenly become focused around who will attack first.
The Rental evolves into a suspense thriller akin to domestic warfare as everyone separates into figurative groups. Michelle and Josh are in the dark beyond suspicions that Taylor is a creep. Charlie and Mina know what they did and are pretty sure their host captured it on tape. And he’s just off-screen with enough power to strike or simply sit back and watch them implode. Do we care which happens? Not really. Those who want to root for the guests will probably hope for retribution and those rooting for carnage will hope Taylor pounces, but neither should necessarily care about the participants beyond those ends precisely because Franco and company don’t either. They tell us just enough to believe the characters’ actions, not condone them. They have purpose.
That brings me back to how a lack of sentimentality can set a horror film apart. Rather than spotlight one or more people as “heroes” worth redemption or salvation, everyone is presented on equal footing in service of the narrative. They’re positioned in a place where their actions (or inaction for that matter) allow them to wind things tighter and tighter until a release can no longer be avoided. And because we know what we know—and only what we know—we help Franco to fill in the blanks with our own expectations and hypotheses. We let him guide us towards answers that can only exist because of their plausibility within an intentionally incomplete picture and then willingly follow him through the fog and over a hidden cliff.
Then and only then are we finally able to recognize the truth. Some will dismiss what occurs as trick plotting, but I’d disagree. This isn’t The Usual Suspects wherein everything is meticulously orchestrated in a way that dupes the audience. Franco is merely presenting a scenario within an even more sinister one than our minds are trained to expect. He creates harrowing drama from speculation and insecurity by leveraging mankind’s wealth of fallibilities. He shields his characters from a very real nihilistic fear for their physical fragility by igniting their abstract fears around love, integrity, and secrecy. We become so wrapped up in their sanctimonious dance of entitlement that we forget evil is disinterested in complexity and emotion. It acts on impulse—efficiently, remorselessly, and often without motive.
 Dan Stevens as “Charlie” and Alison Brie as “Michelle” in Dave Franco’s THE RENTAL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
 Alison Brie as “Michelle” in Dave Franco’s THE RENTAL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
 Sheila Vand as “Mina” in Dave Franco’s THE RENTAL. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.