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The Aviary

By Bobby LePire | May 6, 2022

The Aviary is the first feature film from co-writers and co-directors Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite. The two have previously worked on some shorts and episodes of television together. Here they aim to showcase just how deeply ingrained in one’s psyche the “teachings” of a cult can go and how sometimes escape isn’t just a physical act but a mental one as well.

Jillian (Malin Ackerman) and Blair (Lorenza Izzo) are crossing the New Mexican desert, but they have limited supplies. Why? Because they’ve realized that the therapy group they’ve been a part of, Starlight, is actually a cult. So, the two stored away some food and water and made their escape in hopes of getting to a nearby town.

As hard as that arduous trek is, it is nothing compared to the mental anguish Jillian and Blair experience. The leader of this cult, Seth (Chris Messina), appears to both of them in hallucinations, playing on their insecurities and fears of being caught. In addition, Blair’s damning secret she’s withholding from Jillian adds further pressure and danger on their path to freedom, both mentally and physically.

The Aviary never shows the cult itself. In a stroke of genius, the filmmakers convey its deep-rooted mental games in the dialogue between the two leads. As such, Jillian and Blair are fully formed, making their determination to work through their barriers and persevere all the more palpable. In turn, this raises the stakes, as the characters are in constant danger; the harsh terrain and burning sun imperil them; the threat of being found by members of Starlight constantly looms; but most of all, they are a danger to themselves, due to Seth’s warped mind games.

Jillian and Blair are crossing the New Mexican desert…[realizing] Starlight is actually a cult.”

Ackerman delivers a committed and fearless performance. Jillian was Seth’s lead engineer, essentially his second-in-command. In fact, it was she who roped in the depressed Blair all those years ago. The actor never overplays the regretfulness, allowing her love for Blair to come through in her words and actions. This only adds further tension, as eventually, the two must come clean with each other.

Izzo is just as good as the less stable of the two. The friends wind up in an abandoned church for a night, and Blair has a dark nightmare in which Seth sows seeds of distrust. When she comes to, Blair is on the precipice of falling down a stone stairway. Izzo is wonderful in this scene, conveying fear and confusion believably. She keeps this up for the entire 96-minute runtime. With just a handful of scenes, Messina proves both charming and frightening.

And there’s the finale to The Aviary. It’ll probably prove controversial, as it leaves several threads ambiguous, possibly frustrating some audiences. However, it works beautifully, hammering home the film’s true message in a shockingly unexpected way that never feels like a cop-out. Cullari and Raite know that there’s not always a happy ending in real life, no matter how much one hopes for it.

The Aviary is a stunning work of art about how people get sucked into something offering a glimmer of light and how that light becomes distorted. Ackerman gives the performance of her career, bolstered by brilliant co-leads Izzo and Messina. Cullari and Raite have crafted a compelling and thrilling character study that highlights how dangerous cults are, even when one leaves it behind.

The Aviary (2022)

Directed and Written: Chris Cullari, Jennifer Raite

Starring: Malin Ackerman, Lorenza Izzo, Chris Messina, etc.

Movie score: 9/10

The Aviary Image

"…Ackerman gives the performance of her career..."

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