A strong ensemble cast helps offset the copycat nature of this psychological thriller.
Rebirth (Tribeca Review)
The sinister potential of New Age practices gets explored yet again in Karl Mueller’s Rebirth, a psychological thriller continuing the somewhat recent trend of films about cults like Faults, The Invitation, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. This time, rather than taking inspiration from the likes of the Manson family or Jonestown, Rebirth bases its eponymous enlightenment group off of the Church of Scientology, and anyone vaguely familiar with L. Ron Hubbard’s creepy “religion” will pick up on the influence within minutes. And while Mueller provides enough intrigue to keep viewers guessing, he has a hard time coming up with a proper conclusion for his small-scale mind games.
Kyle (Fran Kranz) is a typical upper-middle-class office drone, living in a big suburban home with his wife and daughter and spending his days working at a bank in the city. An opening montage establishes the happy monotony of Kyle’s life, which soon gets interrupted when his old college friend Zack (Adam Goldberg) shows up at his work. Zack asks Kyle to cancel all his weekend plans and participate with him in something called Rebirth, which he only describes as “an experience.” Kyle bristles at the boldness of his old friend’s proposal, but he decides to go for it after succumbing to his nostalgic feelings.
Things get weird in a short amount of time, as the hotel Kyle checks himself into for the weekend getaway turns out to be a ruse. A series of clues leads him to a bus filled with dozens of other men, all of whom have to hand over their cell phones and wear blindfolds for the entire ride while they’re taken to Rebirth’s real location. Upon arriving, Kyle and the other bus passengers get taken to a room where a man (Steve Agee) explains Rebirth’s anti-establishment philosophies, making it sound like some sort of college bro’s attempt at copying Chuck Palahniuk. From there, several strange events draw Kyle away from the main group and off into a sort of hellish funhouse, exploring a derelict building where each room offers a different, stranger facet of what Rebirth has to offer.
This section of the film turns out to be its strongest, even though its structure and influences are plain as day. Kyle bounces from room to room, and every door he opens functions as an excuse for Mueller to come up with a bizarre situation to throw his protagonist into. An early highlight involves Kyle stumbling into some kind of support group whose leader (Andrew J. West) torments people both physically and psychologically. It’s a gripping sequence, but it’s a borderline remake of the classroom scenes in Whiplash. Plenty of other influences pop up throughout Rebirth, including David Fincher’s The Game and Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror, but these comparisons aren’t complimentary; it just shows that Mueller is a competent copycat.
On the other hand, Mueller’s focus is squarely on creating an entertaining game of figuring out what’s real or part of Rebirth, and Kranz and the committed ensemble (including Harry Hamlin and Pat Healy, who take full advantage of their small roles) make the film’s transparent qualities easier to forgive. It’s in the final act, when the group starts exerting its influence on Kyle’s personal life, that the screenplay starts to break down. By breaking away from Rebirth’s controlled environment and into the real world, the plausibility of the whole scenario gets extremely thin, but not as thin as whatever message Mueller tries to tack on in the closing minutes. After an abrupt ending, the film switches over to one of Rebirth’s promotional videos while the credits roll. The video, a deliberate attempt to mimic Scientology’s promos (including the infamous Tom Cruise video), makes the whole film feel like the set-up for a corny punchline. A brief section of the video, where Rebirth promotes its branded product line, suggests a bit of a sly commentary on New Age ideas getting swallowed up by capitalist interests, but it’s drowned out by the parodic, wink-nudge nature of the clip.