“You’re a dangerous woman,” a drugged character mumbles to Joyce, Lin Shaye’s tragic widow in Tommy Stoval’s psychological thriller, Room for Rent. He’s not kiddin’. The seemingly frail spinster has dark tricks up her sleeve. Not entirely dissimilar to Neil Jordan’s recent Greta, which may boast more of a “prestige factor,” Stoval’s modest effort may actually be the more substantial of the two films.
Sure, Isabelle Huppert’s unhinged titular character is the saving grace of Jordan’s otherwise paper-thin feature – but a commanding lead performance from the French stalwart is par for the course these days. The formidable Shaye, on the other hand, has appeared in well over 100 features since the mid-1970s, with no real opportunity to truly shine – until now. The actress, as it turns out, has dark tricks of her own.
Not that it comes entirely as a surprise. Shaye’s become a horror mainstay: she’s in all of the Insidious chapters, both Ouija movies, as well as countless straight-to-VOD horror flicks. The latter films’ bargain-bin fate will most likely befall Room for Rent, due to its modest production values and lack of star names, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as yet another forgettable, gore-soaked trifle. Stoval directs the admittedly predictable proceedings with an assured hand, infusing his tale with a subtext about the plight and woes of elderly single folks in our society. Don’t underestimate the underdog.
“When Joyce’s husband dies, leaving her with debts instead of an inheritance, she has no choice but to turn her place into a quirky little bed and breakfast…”
The plot is straightforward. When Joyce’s husband dies, leaving her with debts instead of an inheritance, she has no choice but to turn her place into a quirky little bed and breakfast. In the meantime, she is relentlessly, violently and sexually harassed by a local gang of douchebag skaters, led by the reprehensible Wayne (Ryan Ochoa). Soon, Joyce meets her new tenant, the hunky, mysterious Bob (Oliver Rayon) – “a fortuitous encounter” that’s “meant to be,” according to our zany heroine. When Bob beats up skater Wayne, he becomes Joyce’s “hero and protector, keeping her safe from her own demons and all the danger that lurks around her.”
Things spiral out of control: Joyce dresses in increasingly schizoid outfits (an oversized pink bow, an overabundance of blush, an over-revealing dress); she goes through Bob’s stuff, using his deodorant and toothbrush (eew!); and she even invites him into the bathroom, her privates barely concealed by the foam in the tub. The sudden return of Sarah (Valeska Miller), a previous tenant and friend, and her consequent affair with Bob leads to resentment, bleak revelations, cocaine consumption, and murder. The extended final sequence is suitably demented.
Taking place presumably somewhere in the pits of the U.S. Southwest, Room for Rent has a seedy, melancholic, darkly witty vibe to it. Cinematographer Ziryab Ben Brahem certainly captures the “nuclear” in this nuclear neighborhood. Stoval knows how to build character and tension, but, aided by first-time screenwriter Stuart Flack, sometimes struggles with pacing and doesn’t necessarily showcase Tarantino levels of verbal dexterity (“I may bark sometimes, but all I need is a belly rub,” a character purrs creepily at one point). What truly separates Stoval’s flick from the bunch is its central performance.
“Shaye’s spectacular, her Joyce turns vulnerable, introverted, upfront and scheming, always tittering on the brink of madness.”
Talk about committed. Shaye’s spectacular, her Joyce turns vulnerable, introverted, upfront and scheming, always tittering on the brink of madness. She goes to extremes best left unrevealed here for their sheer outrageousness. In the era of acceptance, there still aren’t many films with aging actresses as leads, and even less with ones willing to go to such lengths. Shaye elevates the entire project to another level, adding a much-needed layer of depth and novelty to it. Whether it’s her interactions with a bewildered Bob or a hilariously mistimed encounter with a postman, she is in complete control of every mannerism and gesture. Bravo.
Loneliness and grief leading to murderous obsession is surely not a new theme. Yet Tommy Stoval’s unpretentious descent into madness has a mercifully short running time. Fun and chilling, this bed-and-breakfast gets an extra star for its committed hostess.
Room for Rent (2019) Directed by Tommy Stoval. Written by Stuart Flack. Starring Lin Shaye, Oliver Rayon, Valeska Miller, Ryan Ochoa, Linda Cushma.
7 out of 10