The Aviary, 2022.
Written and Directed by Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite.
Starring Malin Åkerman, Lorenza Izzo, Chris Messina, and Sandrine Holt.
Two women flee into the New Mexican desert to escape the clutches of an insidious cult. Consumed by fear and paranoia, they can’t shake the feeling that they are being followed by its leader, a man as seductive as he is controlling.
Coming from writers and directors Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite (also making their debut narrative feature), The Aviary is more concerned with mind games than characterization. That’s also not necessarily the worst approach considering the trippy, unexplainable situation sees protagonists Jillian and Blair (Malin Akerman and Lorenzo Izzo) find themselves escaping a desert cult run by sinister hypnotist Seth (Chris Mussina).
The filmmakers also curiously choose to start the story with these once brainwashed, now enlightened women on the run with a map in hand and a designated path back to society, which is one way to prevent some of the usual clichés regarding indoctrinated life under the spell of a manipulative magnetic force.
Oddly enough, Jillian and Blair also appear in relatively upbeat spirits, making casual chitchat. You wouldn’t assume they had just run away from a traumatic living environment, mainly when Jillian performs a mean-spirited disappearing act and Blair, intended to be a joke that she, justifiably, does not find funny in the slightest bit. Still, there is emotional pain, especially as they briefly reminisce about these terrors and their shock seizing freedom.
That is until, inexplicably, the survivors find themselves looping around to not only the same landmark but one that is in the opposite direction of civilization. At night, Jillian and Blair also experience what could be anything from visions or bad dreams of Seth’s hypnosis methods (here, it’s called barrier therapy). Dialogue exchanges also reveal more about the hierarchy of this cult, alongside the “lead engineer” role that both women have some experience performing.
These hallucinatory freakouts offer a smidge of visual style alongside some decently captured, vast, and isolating desert landscapes, but more intriguing is how irregular behavior becomes more commonplace. Maybe that cruel joke from the beginning is a result of something more. Both characters also happen to be hiding secrets, but it’s also made clear that they are still somewhat programmed, somehow, by Seth.
Much of The Aviary comes down to figuring out how Seth still has some form of mind control over Jillian and Blair. However, because there probably isn’t a soul on earth that will buy into the idea that these women genuinely have it out for one another or are planning some betrayal, the results are a movie that spins its gears, playing trick after trick on both characters and viewers as the women are stuck in the same traversal cycle. Once the narrative breaks free from that, The Aviary regains interest to an extent, but not before culminating in a series of wildly ridiculous rug pulls over rugs.
The characters also discuss some of Seth’s experiments, and while “Synthesis,” as it comes to be known, is creepy in concept, none of these ideas feel fully formed. Maybe 10 or 15 minutes showing life on the titular aviary would have benefited the narrative. Malin Akerman and Lorenza Izza also deserve kudos for believably selling this descent into madness. However, it’s also hard to buy the characters would quickly jump down each other’s throats before realizing Seth is up to something.
The Aviary has a decent amount of applause-worthy elements, but it also needs a rewrite to sharpen some aspects and themes, with less reliance on shock value swerves to offset waning story engagement.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com