Directed: Karl Mueller
Cast: Fran Kranz, Adam Goldberg, Nicky Whelan
Curiosity is the theme of Karl Mueller’s Rebirth, a movie about a mysterious workshop focused on helping participants find both themselves and reality.
Kyle (played to perfection by Joss Whedon favorite, Fran Kranz) is a typical white-collar family man. He spends his days writing social media content for a bank and his nights with his young daughter and wife. Every day is the same: play video games with the daughter, get ignored by the boss, come home to the wife. All in all, it’s a pretty good existence.
Then Zach shows up. Zach (an enthusiastic Adam Goldberg) was Kyle’s college buddy. He’s just in town for a couple days and wants Kyle to come “have an experience” with him. It’s a weird, vague ask, and Kyle presses him for details. Finally, Zach caves a bit and explains that the experience is called “Rebirth.” It’s a sort of self-help seminar focused on unlocking reality–whatever that means.
Back at home, Kyle watches a informational video on Rebirth. The video is short on actual information, but long on innuendo. One woman explains to the camera that she was able to connect with her sensual side through Rebirth. Another interviewee admits to having “intense sexual experiences.” Kyle is intrigued despite himself. Who wouldn’t be?
The beginning of the seminar is strange. A series of clues lead Kyle through a hotel until he finds the vehicle meant to shuttle them to their final destination. The bus is full of blank-faced men; everyone stares calmly ahead, waiting, but for what? They’re instructed by a mysterious woman (Nicky Whelan) to put on eye masks as the bus pulls away.
When the bus stops, they are lead, still blind, into a new building, and that’s where things really get weird. They take off their masks as lights strobe and music bumps. The room is meant to feel like a party, but it really looks more like a run-down basement. A speaker takes the floor to explain the rules. The first rule is that you can leave at any time. Very reassuring.
From there, Kyle is on a maddening ride that never once lets the tension dip. It’s as if the Mad Hatter’s tea party was taken over by holier-than-thou Scientologists with anger issues. These people are equal parts terrifying and eye-roll worthy in their devotion to this secretive practice. And really, what are we left to think when one of the first group activities at the seminar is a chant of “not a cult”?
The premise is solid and enjoyable, although I wouldn’t consider it totally unique. Rather, Rebirth follows in the footsteps of stories such as Eyes Wide Shut: curiosity gets the better of an unsuspecting character. It’s akin to the genie story in that “be careful what you wish for” could be the main theme; however, in these movies the protagonists aren’t actively searching for a way out of their lives. No, these men didn’t go looking for trouble–they just found it.
It’s the acting that really shines in this movie. Without the strong, honest performances from the cast, I doubt this movie would have worked for me. Fran Kranz, always a fine performer, shines in his portrayal of an awkward, meek father thrust into an impossible situation. The plot may be borderline goofy, but you’re never reminded of that while Kranz demands, questions, fights, and pleads his way through the script.
The seminar building design was stand out as well. At one moment a school, the next a dungeon, each room reflected the atmosphere of the scene all while still feeling cohesive.
I think it’s worth noting that this film is a Netflix original movie. Netflix seems to be working hard to release original content across many genres as often as possible. With the release of Rebirth and the awesome series Stranger Things it’s clear they haven’t forgotten about us scifi/horror nerds. And if these offerings are any indicator of the type of content that is yet to come, then sign me up; I’m excited.