A grabber premise gets solid if not terribly affecting workout in “The Aviary,” a psychological thriller about two women escaping from a cult across the deserts of New Mexico.
On foot, they’re putting distance between themselves and “The Aviary,” a thinly sketched-in science of “self help” retreat where “Skylight” is explored by people with problems. But on the lam, we start to figure out that Jillian (Malin Akerman) and Blair (Lorenza Izzo) carry that cult and its charismatic, manipulative leader Seth (Chris Messina) in their heads with them every precarious step they take.
Jillian was high up the chain of command at the Aviary, and she’s trying to keep her sense of humor as she leads them across unpopulated miles of wasteland on their way to Gallup.
“Would you call the Girl Scouts a cult?” What with the uniforms, the indoctrination, the cookie coercion…
“Be kinda ironic if my first cult saved me from my second!”
Jillian is navigating by the sun, telling younger Blair which berries are poisonous nightshade and probably concocted their escape plan, stashing water and portable snacks for the two or three day trek.
She’s a bit too giddy about escaping from the “trust fund babies” like Blair suckered into the cult. Malibu-born Blair is, she hastens to add, an exception to that label. Blair was willing to flee, and Blair is the one who tamps down Jillian’s premature celebrations of their “escape,” screaming into the night, lighting a fire, because Blair knows they’re not out of the desert yet.
They will be tested as things go wrong and the short, vigorous hike becomes a grueling one through a land of ghost towns and no water. Hallucinations of their leader, accidents, guilty dreams of what transpired at the thinly-veiled Scientology knock-off (video-taped “Barrier Therapy” sessions that can be used for blackmail) set the two women against each other.
“I didn’t join a CULT!” “I didn’t EITHER!” “I thought Skylight WORKED!” “I guess we’re both f—-ng IDIOTS, then!”
The performances are competent if not particularly compelling. There’s not enough of a bond built between the two for us to despair them tearing apart.
Messina (“The Mindy Project”) makes an interesting casting choice as the mesmerizing leader suggesting just enough menace beneath the “I just want to help” exterior.
But with “The Aviary,” co-writers/directors Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite have essentially delivered a proof-of-concept project. Here’s a picture you can film in a pandemic with a skeletal cast and crew and low-cost locations and limited effects.
The things that should make it work are here, most of them anyway. The fact that it doesn’t draw you in or deliver an ending with impact doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. They needed more incidents and to impress upon their players that sense of urgency that a story about “We’ve escaped, they might be looking for us, and we’re in the desert without enough water or food to survive long” should convey.
Sure, he’s “in our heads,” but that should heighten the panic, not increase the resignation. Whatever the psychology of that, giving in to it makes for lukewarm drama and weak cinema.
Rating: R for language and some violent content
Cast: Malin Akerman, Lorenza Izzo, Chris Messina
Credits: Scripted and directed by Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite. A Saban Films release.
Running time: 1:35