What separates a cult from other groups of passionate, like-minded people coming together in service of shared beliefs? Religions, political groups, multi-level marketing businesses, and self-help movements all fit the bill. The most common answers to this question are probably “a charismatic leader,” “no free will,” or “the inability to leave whenever you want.”
This 2016 film proves how dangerous a cult can be — all while making a point to avoid these traditional cult calling cards.
Rebirth is a 2016 Netflix original psychological drama written and directed by Karl Mueller. It stars criminally overlooked actor Fran Kranz as Kyle, a loving husband and father who uses his English degree to write social media posts for a bank. One day, an old friend tells him about a unique self-help weekend retreat known only as “Rebirth.”
Begrudgingly, Kyle agrees to attend, launching him headfirst into an experience unlike any other. At first, he’s in a hotel room and must follow clues, escape-room style, to find his way onto a bus that will take him to the actual retreat. Once he gets there, the vibe is like a rave for dads: just a bunch of men in their thirties, thrashing and cheering and chanting.
There, Ray, played by comedic character actor Steve Agee, lays out the ground rules for Rebirth:
- You can leave any time you want
- No leaders
- No spoilers
- No spectators
He then addresses the rumors that swirl around Rebirth: namely, that it’s a cult. It can’t be a cult, Ray insists, because “a cult doesn’t ask questions, it just gives you answers.” Ray then prompts the crowd to begin chanting “Not a cult! Not a cult!” over and over. To the untrained eye... yes, it sure looks a lot like a cult.
Kyle hesitates, not joining in, and he gets called out for breaking Rule #4. It’s hard not to be a spectator in something you’re experiencing for the first time. Whenever Kyle inquires about some element of his situation, he’s given another question in response. “What is going on?!” he asks. “What do you think is going on?” The woman running the retreat asks him in return.
As he moves through room after room, Kyle confronts darker, deeper truths about those around him. Gradually, he’s forced to process everything from his friend being tortured to an orgy entering its early stages thanks to Gabe, an older man played by Harry Hamlin.
Escaping the seminar should be the entire plot of this film, but Rebirth turns out to be far more sinister than just one extremely gaslight-y retreat. When Kyle returns to his house, it’s clear something has changed. As Kyle reconciles himself with the so-called “importance” of what he was introduced to at Rebirth, this fact becomes all the more unavoidable.
The best part of the film, hands-down, is its epilogue, which mashes the film’s critique of the self-help industry together with a sharp depiction of multi-level marketing companies. Kyle’s wife hawks Rebirth0branded household supplies like she’s selling Herbalife, showing off a gnarly, scarred-over Rebirth logo “brand” that eerily echoes the all-too-real brands inflicted on members of the NXIVM cult.
If you’re looking for a cult thriller that does everything it can to prove just how harmless cults can appear, this is the perfect film. Maybe next time someone tells you about a program that “changed their life,” you’ll be able to spot the Rebirth lurking underneath.
Rebirth is now streaming on Netflix in the U.S.