Ohai Fran Kranz!
Netflix is kicking ass and taking names, quickly becoming one of the biggest names in entertainment and probably one of the more trustworthy in terms of content and accessibility. Lately, they’ve been on another run of amazing original content including the masterpiece Stranger Things and are preparing to shower us with even more riches in the back half of 2016. As you can see, I’m a big fan of what they’re doing as a business and the content they are putting out there. But mostly, it’s their TV shows that I tend to be most interested in. I rarely watch their original movies, but that’s more down to missing the marketing. I did manage to catch the trailer for Rebirth, from writer-director Karl Mueller (who wrote the vicious apocalyptic movie The Divide).
Rebirth starts out as a tense thriller that deals with cults. Eventually, it becomes something much more than that but it’s the kind of thing that is kept so far back in reserve that I think there’s bound to be some misgivings over expectations not being met with the movie. Warning a potential viewer that it’s not exactly what it seems is probably a good thing. It’s definitely not a horror movie, for example.
Because it’s readily available, you should check out Rebirth if you have a Netflix subscription. It’s a movie that I don’t want to spoil for people before they watch it, so I don’t think you should read my review unless you’ve seen it or just don’t care about spoilers.
No “cult” would be complete without a hot human to hook in the fish.
Kyle (Fran Kranz) is a young social media strategist for a big banking company. He has a routine life of plenty. He has an attractive wife, a cute daughter, and all the material wealth he could want. But he’s not really happy. When old college buddy Zach (Adam Goldberg) shows up offering him a spontaneous adventure, Kyle can only put up the most token resistance before he’s biting big into the sandwich he’s being offered.
Adam wants Kyle to come with him on a retreat called “Rebirth”. He checks out some testimonials which are the standard self-help guru shit. This is entirely deliberate. Even the cheesy “manifesto” Zach is so hung up on is deliberately basic and shallow. None of this is profound. Even the weirdo coded speech of “fetuses” (Rebirth newbies) and “zombie world” (everyday life) are deliberately uncreative. So much so that they actually entice just a little bit. There’s enough in Rebirth’s (the retreat that is) message to have even this movie’s audience, who knows something’s up, nodding along going “yeah, material wealth doesn’t make us happy” or whatever. That’s the hook. You start to wonder if maybe Kyle is going to find out that hey, maybe he needs this shit. Maybe we all do.
As Kyle goes on the retreat solo, looking for Zach, he is constantly singled out and picked on by everyone who seems involved. From the orientation leader to that blonde girl in the blazer who keeps hovering around. He behaves like anyone would. He wants to obey the seeming authority of ever-blazered Naomi (Nicky Whelan) who asks him vague, reflective questions and puts him through some reverse psychology shit. He wants to avoid hostility and discomfort. We quickly realize, or we should, that this is all manipulated specifically for him. A viewer will know almost immediately that something’s not right here… but is it just a scam to get Kyle’s money? An elaborate prank from one old friend to another? Or is it something a lot more sinister? Whether Rebirth does this to its newbies on purpose, or there’s something more going on, is a mystery the movie hinges this part of the plot on. The way this layers itself through the story is one of its strengths, and even those disappointed by the bloodless conclusion should be able to admit that the movie had them going.
The iconography is on point. Creepy masks, graffiti, etc.
This is the genius of Rebirth. It pulls you in so many directions that you get caught in the same scam that Kyle does. It simulates a horror movie for us just as it simulates it for Kyle, and Kyle’s arc is the classic zero-to-hero we see in some horror movies, where danger and adversity make an otherwise unremarkable person transform into something else. We almost want for Rebirth to mean Kyle real harm just so we can see him find that inner strength and survive them. However, just as things reach a pinnacle of tension, Zach pulls back the curtain and reveals the truth: all the crazy shit Kyle is subjected to is a simulation that constitutes his “Rebirth”. But, understandably, Kyle ain’t that into it. Just as the audience might be resisting the movie saying, “that’s it!?” and ready to forget all the delicious tension and toying with our expectations that Mueller does so expertly, Kyle resists the transformative moment Zach has created for him. He backs away, escapes, but the movie doesn’t end.
Instead, he comes home to a nightmare of inescapable Rebirthism. Zach has perfectly predicted Kyle’s reaction and set up a scenario of blackmail, extortion, and betrayal that Kyle will have to face if he keeps his resistance going. The interesting thing happening here, that I think is easy to miss, is that Kyle’s whole world comes crashing down and he fights for it. This means that Zach’s insistence that he’s a “zombie” is false, and Zach must know it given all the contingencies he sets up. This is because everybody, no matter how unhappy they are, make decisions in their lives. Kyle chose who he married, and shaped his life, and his struggle to protect it is not invalid just because something is missing, which is the very thing Zach exploits. I really think Zach knows all this, which is also why he knows his offer is going to work. He makes it impossible for Kyle to beat him without fully freeing himself from his attachments, so the alternative is to join him. This is also brilliant because it shows the predatory nature of using our attachments and sentiments against us. Not only are we justified in creating lives we want to protect, but it’s also that which makes us prey to exploitative systems.
Zach switches roles constantly, a chameleon of manipulation.
This is when the movie technically “ends”, with Kyle about to accept Zach’s offer: steal some money from the bank where he works, become Rebirth’s newest asset. It’s like Multi-Level Marketing. Zach has created a situation in which not only will Kyle help him, he’ll become another tier in the Rebirth pyramid. And it is a pyramid. As Zach talks about breaking it wide and making it big, you think back to all the “Rebirth” products he’s planted in Kyle’s house. This isn’t the creepy cult shit the movie has been playing with, this is the creepy cult shit of modern branding. Zach is a business man, not a self-help guru, and his straddling of any possible line there is exactly the point. What’s the difference in a world of Steve Jobs, Starbucks, Deepak Chopra, and Visalus?
The credits show us what life is like for these guys five years later, via another Rebirth “testimonial” video. This is where the movie’s message is driven all the way home. It’s got all of the cheesy smugness of self-help stuff we’ve seen a million times, coupled with the awful realization that this movie is actually taking shots at everything about the way the cult-like social engineering we used to fear has actually become commonplace in the marketed products around us. We’ve got people telling us how better our lives will be if we only drink x vitamin water. We’ve got speakers doing keynotes, affably telling stories about how they were hesitant at first but then bought in and you can too. The guruism that has permeated business, turning products into “lifestyles” and inundating corporatism with retreats, coaches, consultants, has affected so much of society that the creep factor is invisible until you actually pay attention. Rebirth slowly and carefully makes sure we’re paying attention.
Not everyone is going to like the hard turn it takes from “thriller” territory to parodying social commentary, but it’s so well done and so on point that there’s no way I could be disappointed. The very point is that we’re often buying something that looks the part, but turns out to be something else. You get the vitamin water cuz hey, ten out of ten paid experts say it’s healthy, and then all of a sudden you’ve got a subscription to a newsletter and a barrage of marketing for the vitamin supplements that go with the water. It’s all a con, and this movie brilliantly uses that same conceit to show you how it works.