With Rebirth, Karl Mueller stages a canny comedic-existentialist mystery that suggests a stripped down fusion of David Mamet’s House of Games and David Fincher’s The Game and Fight Club. As in the schemes that drive the narratives of those films, the point of Rebirth, a kind of weekend seminary that fuses roleplay with commune culture, is to discern its point. Kyle (Fran Kranz) is a painfully typical office drone, who works for a bank’s social media division, coercing the young and broke into getting loans they can’t afford, helping to initiate others into his realm of debt-obligated henpecked-ness.
Like many corporate people, and many of us at large, Kyle resents the posh net that encloses him while nursing profound terror of release from it: He hates his job, feels trapped by his family and his luxury house, and is averse to confrontation. He’s been inoculated by a capitalist structure that preaches self-actualization while rewarding subservience. Mueller’s cleverest, most resonant touch is the textural specificity of Rebirth’s “cleansing” of Kyle. The film takes a routine turn into thriller terrain in the third act (which it redeems with a bitterly ironic ending), but much of it is comprised of tricky dialogue in which citizens of Rebirth refuse to tell Kyle what to do. And orders are, poignantly and revealingly, all that Kyle really craves. (Kranz’s performance is an astute and merciless caricature of white-collar emasculation.)
Kyle wanders a sprawling, dilapidated, apparently exit-less mansion, going in and out of seminars that are already underway before his arrival. He’s viscerally uncomfortable with the lack of structure, and whenever Kyle asks for assistance or context, particularly from the icy, sexy Naomi (Nicky Whelan), he’s answered with sing-song questions: “Why are you doing this?,” “Why am I doing what?,” “Isn’t that the whole point?,” “The point of what?” Kyle’s confrontations with Naomi are defined by a series of interlocking riddles nested within double entendre. At times, she appears to be daring him to either fuck her, hit her, or do anything that might break the caste system of, in this case, beautiful woman and dweeb, representing an exertion of Kyle’s primacy of will for its own sake, rather than to honor social obligation.
Of course, Rebirth is an organization prompting Kyle to break free from the tethers of another organization—a hypocrisy of which Mueller’s intensely aware. The film is disturbing and funny because it allows its titular cult to be right, diagnosing the “hive mind” to which most of us belong, tethered by our phones and laptops, while allowing that Rebirth serves as just another way of laundering the guilt and misery that spring from our unwillingness to break from status quo. The cult, and its leader, played by a superbly smug and alpha-manly Adam Goldberg, are ultimately selling a red pill that doesn’t so much wake you up from a dream as superficially change its background setting. Mueller convincingly posits freedom, true freedom, as being elusive because it’s essentially a violation of human nature.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from Apirl 13—24.