Two desperate women flee a cult in the New Mexico desert. They quickly learn that the physical escape pales in comparison to the mental anguish. The Aviary is a lean and twisted thriller about the iron grip of mind control. The protagonists could be ripped from recent disturbing headlines. Why would intelligent women allow themselves to be utterly seduced by a charismatic narcissist? The film explores their reasoning, fear, and paralyzing attachment. A sense of belonging begins a dark path to obedience where the most private thoughts may not be your own. The Aviary will keep you guessing.
Jillian (Malin Ackerman) and Blair (Lorenza Izzo) run frantically into the dark night. They want to get as far away from the Aviary as possible before their absence is discovered. Seth (Chris Messina), the leader of Skylight, will certainly be after them. Jillian screams in exhilaration. She’s finally free. A terrified Blair begs her to stop. Seth might hear them. The women have meager supplies, a rudimentary map, and a plan to follow the sun towards the nearest town. The authorities will shut Skylight down.
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Blair takes offense when Jillian refers to Skylight as a cult. She was just looking for answers. Blair loved Seth. He wanted to be with every woman. Jillian was different as a “lead engineer.” Seth inspired her intellectually. Their perilous trek across the arid landscape causes hallucinations. Is that Seth beside the fire? Their hopes and rations dwindle as they hike in circles. Blair and Jillian start eying each other in distrust. Why can’t they make any forward progress? Starvation, dehydration, and exhaustion are used at the Aviary as punishment. Have they really left Skylight? Or has Seth been manipulating them the entire time?
An Omnipresent Menace
“What’s in the way of your joy today?” Seth opens every “barrier session” with this creepy phrase. Jillian convinced Blair to join Skylight. She feels regret for bringing a naive girl into his clutches. The women share details of their experiences with Seth. This leads to startling admissions of what they were both seeking. A quaint introduction escalated into something more complex and sinister. Their hours of training in a mysterious program clouds reality. Seth has become an integral part of their psyche.
Filmmakers Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite stoke fear in their feature debut. Seth is a soothing menace that’s omnipresent. He appears nonchalantly during the day and then becomes a malevolent presence at night, haunting their nightmares. Cullari and Raite depict this change as strobing colors in the campfires. This is a very effective visual cue that infers possession of their souls. His brainwashing tactics are frightening. You understand why the women are so afraid of him.
The Characters are Unreliable Narrators
The narrative takes place primarily between the two main characters. They are unreliable narrators of the story. Are their memories real or implanted for another purpose? Ackerman and Izzo successfully portray a descent into paranoid delusions. The Aviary keeps the answers under wraps until the final minutes. The brisk pacing and mystery overcomes logistical issues. I brushed them off as a willing suspension of disbelief.
The Aviary draws salacious details from Keith Raniere’s NXIVM cult. He lured women into complete servitude, even branding them with his logo as a sign of ownership and loyalty. The film shows that these women aren’t mindless sheep. The lonely are targeted and psychologically manipulated at their lowest point, then brutalized if they try to leave. NXIVM and the Sarah Lawrence cult are extreme cases, but many organizations operate under the same repressive banner. It’s modern-day slavery operating in broad daylight.
The Aviary is a production of Catchlight Studios, Pacesetter Productions, Stagecoach Entertainment, and The Forest Road Company. It will have a limited theatrical and VOD release on April 29th from Saban Films.
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About The Author
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Julian Roman has been with Movieweb for nearly twenty years. An avid film buff, he feels lucky to have interviewed and written extensively about Hollywood’s greatest talents. In his spare time he plays guitar, treasures good company, and always seeks new adventures.
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