The Aviary opens on Jillian (Malin Akerman) and Blair (Lorenza Izzo) stumbling into the pre-dawn desert and looking back at a compound that “looks so small from here.” We quickly learn that they are escaping the titular “Aviary,” homestead of Skylight, a deeply worrying-sounding cult. Both women are almost gleefully happy to be free of the group and confidently heading to civilization for both freedom and revenge. They have supplies, a map, and a hard drive full of details of the machinations of the cult and its creepily persuasive leader Seth (Chris Messina). It isn’t too long however before their escape begins to unravel.
Izzo and Akerman do a fantastic job of getting the viewer into their mindsets. Blair, the younger, more timid member of the duo is guarded and looking over her shoulder, while Jillian is joyous, loud, and raring to get to a new life. Jillian has things mapped out (quite literally) and has the air of an enthusiastic scout leader. The euphoria of leaving the Aviary powers her and she seems to look after her partner in flight like she’s her big sister. The writing is skillfully done and keeps things on the right side of “show, don’t tell” feeding you glimpses of what Skylight was without ever having Blair and Jillian telling each other things they’d already know for the audience’s benefit.
Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Desert
The feeling of being lost is an underrated tool for the horror movie maker. Even with maps on your phone, most people are familiar with the growing unease that accompanies “Wait… shouldn’t there be a building/trees/etc here? Have I gone the wrong way?” Put that in the wilderness a la The Blair Witch Project or The Ritual and the fear is only heightened and universally recognizable.
The first time the pair realize they aren’t where they should be is a horrible shock to them. It’s supposed to be a straight route — have they got turned around? Does that mean Seth is closer than is comfortable? What gradually becomes clearer is that Seth is in their heads. Escaping the years of indoctrination is going to be harder than escaping the desert. And it’s not like the desert isn’t lethal if you aren’t careful or if you wait long enough.
The effects of dehydration and exposure are conducive to doubt, and it’s clear that Seth has carefully manipulated his victims to lose trust in themselves at the best of times so he can take control. The makers cleverly ramp up the feelings of desperation and confusion, with each positive sign being followed by the progress being swept away by a setback or nightmares that begin to encroach into their waking hours. And all of this is happening while the food and water supplies dwindle. They can’t circle indefinitely.
What the stress will also bring out is any old resentments. And, without going into spoilers, if anywhere is a hotbed of grudges and personal slights, it’s a cult. The differences in seniority, the arbitrary rules, the whole world being reduced to jockeying for the attention of the leader… It’s custom designed to make people turn on themselves or others.
Writer/directors Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite have crafted an uncommonly intelligent thriller with a cast that never puts a foot wrong. They have complex, layered characters and they portray them to a tee. If you have the opportunity to catch The Aviary‘s limited cinema run, I would highly recommend it.
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