Overview: A hardworking married man is approached by an old college friend to attend a self-help retreat called Rebirth, but he gets more than he asked for. Netflix; 2016; Not Rated; 100 minutes.
Not a Cult: Rebirth is not a cult. We’re told this many times throughout the film, and at one point it’s even chanted by the retreat’s massive coalition of members. And yet Rebirth has all the makings of a cult, with the exception being that there are no leaders, or at least none in the Jim Jones sense. But the retreat’s hidden location, secret rooms, the urging for participants to abandon their earthly possessions, and a Rebirth’s very own brand of (harmless) kool-aide all have the desired effect of seeming cult-ish. But cults have negative consequences which is something Rebirth, for all its dime-store smoke and mirrors, is sorely missing.
When Kyle (Fran Kranz), a married father and social media representative for an accounting firm is first invited to Rebirth by his old college friend, Zack (Adam Goldberg), it’s a safe audience assumption that that Rebirth is bad news. Director Karl Mueller uses our knowledge of real-life cults and the film’s genre to create the expectation for this bad news…only it never really comes. When it comes to thrillers we welcome bad news, we want to see the terribleness that results from ignorance and exquisitely human mistakes. After all, the thriller is a genre that thrives on pushing events, and the effects of those events, to next level consequences. Rebirth never takes the steps to that next level. Instead, Rebirth offers perfunctory curiosities mixed with a ho-hum lecture to introductory sociology and philosophy. Rebirth wants to be a thriller, but it’s far too tame to live up to its setup. There certainly are some interesting ideas, but they’re never matched with interesting direction or execution. Rebirth is not a cult and that has a lot to do with why Rebirth is not a thrilling thriller.
The Things You Own End Up Owning You: Rebirth has drawn instant comparisons to The Game, but it also shares similarities with David Fincher’s subsequent film, Fight Club. But all of those two films’ fascinating exploration of masculinity and the American Dream are boiled down into a manifesto Kyle created in college. This manifesto is made up of three tenants: 1. Fuck the man. 2. Keep it real. 3. DON’T BE BORING. Of course none of these things mean anything or offer any real insight. Kyle recognizes this, but Adam lives by these values and that manifesto serves as the basis for Rebirth’s self-help. There’s a glimmer of hope for the film in the fact that Kyle recognizes that his manifesto means nothing, but then the film completely buys into it. Those three nothing values become the central thesis of the film and are enacted by the characters without any real consequence. There’s a profoundly interesting concept that runs through the course of the film: different people need different things, love, lust, violence, masochism, to achieve rebirth and feel complete. Every room within the Rebirth facility offers a different experience, one that could possibly make Kyle feel alive again. But the film skirts around the edges of these ideas, cracking doors but never fully stepping inside these rooms or exploring their ramifications.
Light Enlightenment: Kyle’s enlightenment signals nothing. Perhaps it’s because Kyle’s life prior to Rebirth is never as dire as the film wants us to believe. He has an easy, well-paying job, a gorgeous wife who actually beckons him to have sex with her, and a daughter that he likes spending time with. Yet the film asks to believe that because Kyle has a routine that he’s somehow an example of failed human potential, when he literally could have taken a trip to Vegas for all that Rebirth offers. Fran Kranz admirably sells Kyle’s aloofness and eventual panic but the events connected to these emotions are unworthy of Kranz’s effort. The film’s events are also unworthy of our guesswork. There is no enlightenment for the audience either because the film believes it’s cleverer than it is. Even if the leap could be taken to call the film a satire, Rebirth doesn’t have much to say. For all the insight Rebirth offers, we’d be better off listening to a group of college freshman discuss why adulthood sucks while they stare at a poster of Tyler Durden and pass around a blunt.
Overall: Rebirth elicits no strong emotions. It’s not tense enough, not surprising enough, not dangerous enough, and not darkly comedic enough. It lives in the shadows of the films it tries to emulate while offering little more than a sophomoric understanding of the human condition.
Featured Image: Netflix