Cult movies – and by that, I mean movies about cults, not something like Rocky Horror – have grown exponentially in popularity thanks to high-profile exposés about Scientology, NXIVM, etc. The Aviary, the chilling feature debut from frequent Blumhouse TV writers Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite, notably takes a different approach to several others of its ilk, however. The story is set not while the protagonists are being indoctrinated, or after they’re already in too deep, but while they’re in the process of fleeing the compound. Literally, in fact, since much of the movie takes place in the desert as Jillian (Malin Akerman) and Blair (Lorenza Izzo) make a run for it. Naturally, their journey home isn’t as straightforward as it initially seems.
The Aviary kicks off in media res, with Jillian and Blair packed up and heading out into the wilderness in the middle of the night. The difference in their experiences is clear from the outset, as the camera lingers on Blair’s inappropriate Converse sneakers and Jillian’s smart hiking boots. It transpires that Jillian actually brought Blair – a trust fund kid who was looking for her purpose at the time – into the cult, though the younger woman doesn’t like it when Jillian uses that word. Jillian is focused on getting as far away from dastardly leader Seth (Chris Messina) as possible, but Blair is more hesitant. Whatever happened to the two of them – Cullari and Raite purposely leave it vague, emphasizing how little understanding they have of their own situation – Blair is recovering a lot slower than Jillian, despite the fact she was demonstrably closer to Seth overall.
The Aviary provides a hugely compelling physical manifestation of what it takes to leave a cult. As the duo trudges on through the desert, they bicker about whether the Girl Scouts are technically a cult, gush over sharing packs of Cheetos, and gradually start losing their grip on reality. Blair, who’s clearly still terrified of Seth – great cult leader name by the way, very un-showy – cracks first, hearing noises in the middle of the night and seeing visions when they stumble upon a seemingly abandoned village. The question lingers as to whether she’s paranoid, or if they’re really after her. And, to their great credit, Cullari and Raite, who also co-wrote the tight, impressively exposition-light script, don’t confirm either way until the movie’s shocking, yet sadly inevitable, final moments. The story unfolds organically, rather than it feeling as though Jillian and Blair are required to hit certain marks along the way.
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For the most part, The Aviary is a two-hander confidently led by Akerman and Izzo, with just one other character besides Seth making a fleeting appearance. Their co-lead performances are equally strong and utterly committed, particularly considering the movie was shot in the desert during the pandemic and it clearly wasn’t comfortable for either actor. The sun-dappled cinematography curdles the longer they’re out there, with sunburn and dehydration noticeably taking hold. All the while, Jillian and Blair try to break out of the psychological prison in which they’ve been placed, with hints that Seth is well-versed in mind control among other oppressive and controlling measures. The wide expanse the two women are forced to traverse is captured beautifully, emphasizing how isolated the compound was, although we don’t spend longer than a few minutes at a time there, which creates a necessary barrier between what happened then and now.
These kinds of movies typically focus on the leader rather than the victims, but Seth is an almost ghostly presence throughout. Messina impresses during his short screentime, with a full beard and strategically comfy jumper, his New York drawl softened to deliver recognizably accurate cult-speak such as “what’s in the way of your joy today?” – a question that actually opens the movie, too. This is a very different role for Messina, and those who know him predominantly as Danny Castellano from The Mindy Project will find it especially difficult to consolidate his rom-com sweetness with this coolly manipulative charlatan. Although the central cult, Starlight, obviously doesn’t really exist there are shades of infamous real-life scam NXIVM in the branding of the women’s bodies. Indeed, the group was a direct influence on this story. Elsewhere, there are allusions to The Blair Witch Project and The Endless in The Aviary, especially in the film’s more unnerving moments and its hints at Seth’s supernatural abilities. Mostly, though, this is a character-driven story about the lingering hold being part of a cult has on its victims, and how tough it is to break free.
Catch The Aviary in theaters, on digital and On Demand now
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Chris Cullari, Jennifer Raite
Writer(s): Chris Cullari, Jennifer Raite
Stars: Malin Akerman, Lorenza Izzo, Chris Messina, Sandrine Holt
Release date: April 29, 2022
Run Time: 96 minutes