While I don’t have much reason to interact with “incels” (involuntarily celibate (usually) men), like anyone who spends any time online, I’m familiar with the trope. Rent-a-Pal, written and directed by Jon Stevenson, is set some twenty years before that concept ever caught on, but it plays like an instruction manual for how to build a bitter, unfulfilled man who’s so entrenched in his own victim mentality that those around him become victims to his brutality. Stevenson’s directorial debut is a moody, retro exploration of toxic masculinity, both historic and contemporary, one that will disturb more than scare.
Brian Landis Folkins is David, who lives in a dank, small house with his aging mother who suffers from dementia. His days are spent caring for her every need, much as she might resist (and much as she might mistake him for her dead husband, Frank). Once he’s seen to her, David—a perfectly average white guy, blonde hair and glasses, with a bit of an oversized waistline—settles in to watch the latest matches he’s checked out from the video dating service he uses. The women have recorded brief but engaging messages about themselves and what their looking for in a man; when David calls Diana, the receptionist at the dating service, to see about any women who’ve requested to match with him (none have), Stevenson sneaks in a telling rub against David’s ego: as she answers, he simply says “Hi, it’s David. I was wondering…” as though the woman on the other end of the line should be familiar with him by this point. She cuts him off to ask for his client ID number, and it’s a small but significant slight that bruises David’s already fragile sense of self.
Somewhere in the mix of tapes he picks up from the agency he gets one called “Rent-A-Pal,” a video of someone named Andy (Wil Wheaton, in a deliciously devious performance) who carries on a seemingly one-sided conversation from the screen, responding to and prompting conversation to which he can’t possibly be privy. Or can he? David is skeptical at first, but after he misses his chance to meet with Lisa (Amy Rutledge)—who by every indication from her tape would be a perfect match—he begins to engage with Andy as though he’s really carrying on a conversation. It’s certainly creepy, but there’s nothing particularly scary about the way David and Andy interact. In a time before the internet, cell phones or video meetings, what’s the harm if a lonely, middle-aged man gets his socialization through a VHS tape? Their “relationship” soon becomes the most anticipated part of David’s day, sharing stories with Andy (and us) over games of Go Fish (not exactly sure how that works, but…movies).
When David hears that Lisa’s previous match didn’t work out and she’s available again, he seizes the opportunity to finally connect with her, and in the film’s more sincere scenes, the two seem to genuinely hit it off. But Andy’s having none of it, convincing David to cancel his plans with her in favor of staying in with his VHS buddy. It’s nearly imperceptible, but over time Andy’s been planting seeds of bitterness and frustration in David’s psyche, and soon David is acting out against his mother and won’t respond to Lisa’s calls. By the third act of the film, he’s completely lost it, Andy’s vitriol deeply ingrained in him as the women in his life become the victims of his aggression. To say that it’s impossible to see their fates coming isn’t entirely fair; David’s evolution over the course of the film long signals how he’ll act out against his mother eventually, thought it’s nevertheless a brutal moment when it does come.
Stevenson’s script is surprisingly eventful for a film where a main character exists entirely on a second screen, creating several moments of interesting character development for both David and Andy. While Wheaton seems to relish the opportunity to play a slick, charming villain like Andy, while Folkins balances David’s innocence and susceptibility with a rage that bubbles just under the surface. He hates his lot in life and, since he hasn’t found a way to improve it despite his best efforts, the dread of another day of the same solitary routine wears on him. With Andy’s influence, he certainly finds new ways to change up his circumstances—they just happen to be deadly. Though it’s never terribly profound about it, Rent-a-Pal explores how a lack of quality social connection can leave one more likely to be indoctrinated with a pessimism about the world and a violent urge to correct it.