When we first meet Jillian (Malin Akerman) and Blair (Lorenza Izzo), they’re hiking in the Arizona desert, but not for fun—they’ve just escaped from a cult known as Skylight and are trying to walk to Gallup, the nearest town. Without knowing exactly what happened to them in Skylight, we can guess that it was bad, because they’re terrified that they’re being tracked and, if caught, will be taken back and subjected to who knows what punishment for their disloyalty.
Things could be worse: they have a map, some water and food, and warm clothing. Jillian claims to have wilderness knowledge gained from her years in the Girl Scouts, which occasions a joking exchange about whether so apparently innocent an organization as the Girl Scouts could also be considered a cult, what with the uniforms and pledges and such. I’m not terribly impressed by her outdoors skills, however, since she don’t seem to have grasped basics like covering your head when walking in the full sun (and that goes double if you are light-skinned and blonde, as Akerman is). On the other hand, this film doesn’t benefit from being taken literally, so I’m not sure if the oversights are due to ignorance on the part of the filmmakers, or are meant to indicate that what we’re seeing may not be exactly real.
Jillian and Blair have another reason they think they’re being followed—they stole a laptop from the cult leader, Seth (Chris Messina), and believe it contains incriminating information about other members of the cult. Since Seth collects that type of information and uses it for blackmail purposes, he’s probably very interested his property getting it back. This bit is reminiscent of the setup psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker in the 1947 version, Cate Blanchett in 2021) has with her society patients in Nightmare Alley: she records counseling sessions with them, during which they reveal lots of information they wouldn’t necessarily want revealed to the public (and which, ethically speaking, she should keep confidential, but that wouldn’t make for much of a movie, would it?).
We learn a bit more about the cult from Jillian and Blair’s conversations, although things are left fairly vague. Like many cults, it seems to be big on purity, loyalty, and obedience, and above all top-down power. Chris does some kind of “counseling” sessions with members in which he exhorts them to get through their “barriers,” and if that reminds you of Sci***ology, you’re not the only one. Things don’t always go well with Seth’s counseling, either: one member of the cult was ordered to starve herself and ended up in the hospital, while others were punished by being forced to stand outside in the cold, which is both infantilizing and dangerous.
While The Aviary begins in an apparently realistic mode, over time it raises doubts about how much of what we’re seeing on screen is real. Both women experience hallucinations, which get weirder as the film progresses, and also have visions, or perhaps sensations, that Seth is there with them. There’s also something strange going on with their journey, because they’ve been walking and walking and don’t seem to be getting anywhere, as if Seth and the cult have exerted some kind of physical as well as psychological control over them.
The Aviary is essentially a three-hander, or maybe a two-and-a-half-hander, since the two female leads get the preponderance of the screen time. It’s the first feature film directed by Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite, who also co-wrote the screenplay, and has the feeling of a first film trying to make a strong impression while working with a low budget and shooting under pandemic conditions. Not much is new in The Aviary, and sometimes it’s more preposterous than scary, but it has a good cast (Akerman was the main draw for me) and offers enough of interest to make it worth a look. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Aviary is opening in selected theatres on April 29, and will also be available digitally and on demand on that date.