Review: THE AVIARY, The Inescapable Wilderness of the Mind
I'm normally loathe to begin a review with a dictionary definition, but I did find myself turning to Oxford on my shelf to look up the word 'cult': one of those things perhaps, like, porn, that we can't define but we know it when we see it. Obsession and isolation that leads to entrapment can have devastating and permanent affects on the mind, no matter how hard someone tries to break free. That nagging loneliness that leads one to a cult might be too much to bear when one escapes it. And who could resist a person who promises you contentment, satisfaction, and happiness in your life, when we see what alternative the world is offering us?
The Aviary tells the story of two women attempting to escape such a cult, and how those first days of escape are the most dangerous. Written and directed by Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite, this feature debut strips down its premise to bare-boned essentials, allowing for the slightest proverbial scratch to fester as its characters undergo physical and psychological turmoil as they try to escape the cult, its leader, and possibly each other.
Jillian (Malin Akerman) and Blair (Lorenza Izzo) have been residents of Skylight, somewhere in the New Mexico desert, for a long time - long enough to know they're in a dangerous cult and in danger, and so they make their escape. Armed with a map, a few bottles of water and protein bars, Jillian leads their route to the nearest town, and hopefully, police who will arrest Seth (Chris Messina), for a crime they have proof of on a stolen laptop. They are free, terrified, and determined to get away.
But (weeks? months?) spent with this psychoanalyst and whatever his particular method of control is (in the end it doesn't matter, only that he did exert this control) have wreaked havoc on both women. Jillian's giddiness over eating snackf food at first seems joyful, but later the cracks show as it becomes a shield against her inner demons. Blair is skittish, constantly looking over her literal and proverbial shoulder, hearing Seth in her ear at any given moment. With only each other to rely on, trying to get to safety seems a distant goal to just getting themselves free of a man who has insinuated himself so deep in their psyches that there is no room left for the women themselves.
While the physical space of the story might be expansive and bleak, the women, and we, are trapped within their damaged minds. Is Seth really there, following them, keeping to the shadows and whispering on the wind to drive them insane? Is Jillian just leading them back to the cult in some twisted game? Is Blair responsible for a terrible crime? We're given crumbs of information to piece together, as they fall from the women's mouths and fracturing minds, with the truth elusive as if too frightening to realize.
It's a credit to the actors and filmmakers that we keep guessing at what the truth might be; while it doesn't quite stick the landing (perhaps a little bit of let down given the build-up of guessing tension), the journey is one that is both tense and oddly relatable - while Jillian and Blair both react in widely different ways to their common trauma, both reactions are understandable.
Cullari and Raite have crafted an intimate thriller, one that asks us to question the sanity of two people in a terrible situation and a terribly lonely existence, even as they are together. The insidious nature of those who force their will over us, and the desperate need to escape a terrible cage, gives The Aviary a potent and visceral tone.
The Aviary opens in select cinemas and on VOD on April 29th.
- Chris Cullari
- Jennifer Raite
- Chris Cullari
- Jennifer Raite
- Malin Akerman
- Lorenza Izzo
- Chris Messina