Dir: Dave Franco. Cast: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari. 15 cert, 89 mins
Dave Franco’s Airbnb chiller The Rental has a great poster – remember those? It’s an upside-down shot of a holiday home, invitingly warm inside, but with a silhouetted figure falling out of it into the night, or maybe the Pacific Ocean. “Secluded getaway. Killer views.”
It gives away little but mood, promise and some mysterious off-screen threat, much like the film’s thoroughly skilful first hour. From the first shot of Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) gazing at this coastal retreat on a computer, we’re being toyed with. They seem intimate and conspiratorial, and agree to splurge. Then the scruffy Josh (Jeremy Allen White) bounds in, not meaning to interrupt. He’s Charlie’s brother and Mina’s boyfriend. So they’re business partners. Aha.
It’s a deft bit of misdirection, establishing at a stroke certain tensions that this script, by Franco and the micro-budget veteran Joe Swanberg, will pluck and exploit until things are bloodily genre-fied. This trio, plus Charlie’s level-headed wife Michelle (Alison Brie), head to the house for an indulgent weekend, with celebrations mixed in: Charlie and Mina have just clinched a lucrative deal and it’s time to let their hair down.
If there’s something a little off with the man who lets them in – an insinuating local played by Toby Huss – this could be simply a case of getting off on the wrong foot. But there’s a racial element. Mina’s surname is Mohammadi, which she’s pretty sure is the reason her attempt to book didn’t work, whereas Charlie had no trouble entering the same details an hour later.
Something else is off. It could be a rustle in the breeze, or simply the way the camera spots this quartet on a walk across the beach, from a pointedly extreme distance. The film doesn’t need to use the hoary old cut-out of binoculars masking the frame to imply a sense they’re being watched. It manages without some hammer-wielding psycho’s heavy breathing, and builds atmosphere instead with the ominous low notes of a cool electronic score. Franco knows this terrain well enough to deal in suggestive hush, to play a waiting game, and to lay a bed of unease under the whole thing.
The “reveal” of the film is usually what everyone wants to talk about most in horror, but here it’s almost a pretext for the film up to that point: a surprisingly witty crescendo of character-building, erupting into shivery disharmony like a Bartók string quartet. Before we’re out, there will be batterings, terrible mistakes, and bodies piling up on the winding woodland driveway. But the film takes a black-heartedly satirical approach to its long game – a punishment it inflicts on these four rather entitled, whiny, bourgeois 30-somethings, and in many ways a grave they’ve dug for themselves.
Billed as an indie slasher, it works even better as a wickedly unsympathetic chamber piece. Stevens has a talent for squirming, playing an apparent hero who reveals himself as a man of microscopic moral conscience, tucked far beneath his practised way of getting what he wants. For all their ironic bro banter, there’s a toxic determinism to the way Charlie treats Josh, who can’t escape his pre-defined role of being the feckless deadbeat, terrified Mina will outgrow him – and for good reason.
The funniest moments come from Brie. Michelle’s plans for an organised hike come undone when everyone but her piles into a bag of MDMA she’d hoped they would save for the following night. Angry about their ensuing lack of stamina, she dabbles solo and is therefore high as a kite when the film’s irreversible shocks start occurring. She keeps the role in a delightful zone of dazed hysteria as long as she can, before the flurry of final-reel nastiness we know is due sooner or later. The later the better – that’s Franco’s whole gambit with this clever, cruel, divertingly savvy little exercise.
Available on Amazon Prime from Friday