Written by: Matt Patti | April 28th, 2022
The Aviary (Chris Cullari/Jennifer Raite, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.
While some cults encourage violence towards others, others have resulted in mass suicides. These two outcomes are likely what most folks think of when it comes to cults. However, perhaps even more chilling are the cults that seem peaceful and the cult leaders that appear to actually want to help people but turn out to have sinister motives. Indeed, some cults don’t even seem to be cults at the beginning, easily luring their members into something they think is therapeutic and good. Getting out of a cult can be extremely difficult and perilous, but there are many stories of those who have escaped and the trauma they’ve experienced afterwards. Co-directors Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite explore the horrors of post-cult life in The Aviary.
In the film, two former members of an organization called Skylight escape their remote campus and journey into the New Mexico desert. Jillian (Malin Akerman, Chick Fight) was the former right-hand woman to the leader of Skylight, Seth (Chris Messina, The True Adventures of Wolfboy). Blair (Lorenza Izzo, Women Is Losers), on the other hand, was a newer member to the “family” and had fallen in love with Seth before deciding to leave. Both women started to recognize the signs of Skylight being a full-blown cult, with strict rules and manipulation all around. Now, out on their own in the middle of nowhere, Jillian and Blair must help each other survive the brutal desert. However, they face an even greater challenge: overcoming the endless visions, hallucinations, and paranoia that come as side effects from suddenly leaving a very specific way of life and breaking free of the former notions that Seth has installed in them.
The film begins with the two women in the desert, having already escaped from Skylight. They chat quite often, especially in the early part of the film, about their time there, which gives the audience insight into how they used to live and the horrors they each experienced there, though these conversations become a bit too exposition-heavy at some points. They seem to get along very well at first, but conflict arises as the two held quite different positions in Skylight: Jillian was a strict enforcer of the cult’s ways and second-in-command to its leader Seth, and she recruited Blair to Skylight, and Blair makes sure Jillian doesn’t forget this fact. Meanwhile, Blair is a much younger, more emotional person who was easily manipulated into joining the organization. The dynamic between the two is quite riveting, as even though they are working towards the same goal now, they both feel as if they can’t quite trust each other. Akerman and Izzo provide believable, quality performances that ground their characters in realism and help the audience sympathize with their struggles.
The Aviary effectively showcases the cult lifestyle and presents in an even better light the effects that living that lifestyle for so long will have on those who have recently abandoned it. Both Jillian and Blair cannot get Seth out of their heads as his “wisdom” haunts them in their dreams and his way of thinking guides many of their moves, even when trying to do the complete opposite to free themselves of that way of life. That being said, these visions and dreams do get very redundant, especially near the end of the film, and lose their effectiveness. Overall, though, The Aviary is able to hold the viewer’s attention firmly thanks to two compelling characters with complicated pasts and the notion that neither of them are actually safe now. It has a few faults, namely with repetition and a very ambiguous and slightly confusing conclusion, but The Aviary goes to prove that a film with only two main characters walking around a desert can be immensely engaging so long as the characters are layered and intriguing and the circumstances are of interest. In this case, both check the box, and the film mostly succeeds.