Voyeurism. A perennially controversial human phenomenon that is as old as recorded history. The act of watching (usually in a clandestine fashion) our fellow apes as they are engaged in their most private behaviours has informed a plethora of erotic fiction, psychological thrillers and works centred around espionage. A great deal of the time, this practice is identified with its function as a sexual paraphilia, a ‘disorder of preference’ (as the DSM refers to it) where practitioners obtain arousal from the taboo aspect of spying on intimate proceedings and potentially derive a power kick from their targets being none the wiser. This motivation has been portrayed iconically in several works, Michael Powell’s masterpiece Peeping Tom featuring an utterly unhinged protagonist who loved filming the dying expressions of fear on the faces of sexualised female victims. In less bloodthirsty but nevertheless horny capacity, it crops up in the likes of Blue Velvet, Monsieur Hire, and Body Double, and actually takes the form of noble endeavour in works such as Rear Window, Blow-Up and The Conversation, the latter three films utilising the concept as the axiomatic tool of unlikely heroes.
Compelling as it is to walk inside the skin of a watcher, I find it most unsettling when a picture is constructed from the POV of those being watched. Michael Haneke’s Cache, Lynch’s Lost Highway and Klute (the finest entry in Alan J. Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy) all expertly build a hair-raising atmosphere in which a beleaguered protagonist simply cannot escape the feeling of a presence lurking in the vicinity, taunted with footage of their abodes, breathy voices down the phone, strange noises and unnatural shadows. The notion of being violated in such a way, being viewed for somebody’s sinister hijinks whilst in bed with your significant other, having a shower or simply just trying to enjoy your own company, is far viler than the imminent arrival of a hockey-masked lunatic or slobbering xenomorph.
The Rental, the directorial debut of David Franco, is a brand new mystery-horror that burns slowly in its crafting of suspense predicated on the uncertainty that someone or something can see you, but you can’t see them. Though slightly flawed, it is a commendable first feature that intriguingly plays with tropes and produces some interesting ideas about how safe we truly are while engaged in otherwise benign activities of life.
Charlie (Dan Stevens) is an entrepreneur running a business with Mina (Sheila Vand). In the opening scene, we’re given the initial impression that they’re also a romantic couple with a display of casual physical proximity and intimate gazes, but this is quickly dispelled as being nothing more than a very strong platonic connection when it’s established that Mina is actually the girlfriend of Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White). Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie), and this quartet appears to enjoy a pretty close dynamic. Charlie and the two women are ostensibly the level-headed elders of the group, whilst Josh is a troubled hothead attempting to turn his life around, having been recently released from prison for a near-fatal assault.
Having booked a weekend getaway to a remote seafront Airbnb in Oregon, the foursome arrives at the picturesque house to be greeted by the property’s owner, Taylor (Toby Huss). Mina is understandably prickly, given that her application to the property was rejected only an hour before Charlie’s request was accepted, a disparity that she ascribes to her unmistakably Iranian full name. This suggestion of bigotry, along with every other utterance or gesture from the group, is met with barely concealed hostility from Taylor. A strangely unfriendly and passive-aggressive man, Taylor appears to take an instant dislike to our central four, responding to their questions and comments with a brusque, deadpan defensiveness before unceremoniously driving off. A little unsettled at this encounter, the group filter inside and do their damnedest to unwind.
After some banter, a leisurely beach stroll and getting annihilated on booze and MDMA, we begin to get a clearer picture of the fact that there’s a couple of things rotten in the state of Denmark. Charlie isn’t the perfectly agreeable gentleman that we initially take him for, secretively having a few problems with the concept of monogamy. If this isn’t bad enough, his libido has turned its attention toward Mina, her selfish reciprocation of his lust generating painful empathy for poor Josh and Michelle, two loyal and genuine people excited to be away with their loved ones. With a newfound self-disgust to deal with in light of their hidden peccadilloes, Charlie and Mina’s shameful reticence begins to sour the atmosphere, creating an effectively uncomfortable element of domestic drama that is suspenseful in its own right. Convincing performances and several close calls make one squirm in anticipation of the tumult that is certain to occur. But, just when it looks like this will be a tale of dysfunction and betrayal with a strangely disquieting and arty aesthetic, things get weirder. Far, far weirder.
After a throwaway comment about wishing to get a full view of the stars at night, the foursome finds a fully-mounted telescope in the living room after coming back from a walk, indicating that Taylor is in the habit of letting himself in arbitrarily and unannounced. Other major causes for concern include Josh’s smuggled-in French Bulldog getting repeatedly spooked at some vague presence in the surroundings, Mina discovering an unusual object in the showerhead that looks remarkably like a micro-camera, and several surveillance-like shots of the group that suggest we are viewing them through the eyes of an unseen observer. As the tension of ugly secrets and faltering bonds mounts, there is the most perturbing notion that the drama is incidental entertainment for a very sick and shadowy mind whose motives and actions are completely unpredictable. Is Taylor actually a dangerous peeping tom who rents his property out to strangers he can spy on, or is the explanation even worse than that?
Adapted from Franco’s very own short story, The Rental cuts an ambitious figure in terms of its script, and for the most part, it is a bold and creative work that maintains viewer attention nicely. I have something of a perverse soft spot for the theme of narcissistic and myopic individuals, who invariably tend to be well-to-do, becoming pawns in the game of some force that is contemptuously malevolent. The interplay between the two brothers and their partners becomes entrenched in uneasiness, and it does a great job of supplementing the grotesquerie of somebody with bad intentions being out there, enjoying the spectacle of it all unravelling, keeping the audience on tenterhooks as to whether they’ll remain on the sidelines or begin to participate.
As for minus points, the contention of Taylor’s ambiguous racism is never given any real resolution. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware of the ramifications of hiring discrimination when it comes to names that are not typically Western, if you like, and I believe there is cogency in the proposed dilemma. But it arises in the film in a manner that feels shoehorned and subsequently crescendoes into nothing whatsoever. I’m cognizant of the possibility that it is merely there to fortify Taylor’s utter dickishness, but he’s enough of an interpersonally unpleasant sod as it is, so I don’t see the point of making something a potential crux and then abandoning it altogether.
It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s smart and challenging enough to warrant David Franco as a name to anticipate in future projects. There is good pathos here and the red herrings bolster things nicely, and despite the third act being somewhat frenetic in terms of gear change, the payoff cements a satisfyingly disturbing nugget of paranoia that lingers. I very much doubt that you’ll be screaming from the rooftops, but if you’re in the mood for a clever little thriller that predominantly succeeds at getting under your skin, you can’t go far wrong with this.