BY NOEL MURRAY
APRIL 29, 2022 12:36 PM PT
Malin Akerman in the movie “The Aviary”(Saban Films / Paramount Pictures)
If you’ve watched any of the documentaries about the NXIVM cult, you’ll recognize a lot of the details in the intense escape drama “The Aviary” Malin Akerman plays Jillian, who as the movie begins is trudging through the desert with Blair (Lorena Izzo), a woman she recruited into Skylight: a wellness organization that manipulates its members through deprivation and abuse, NXIVM-style. As they flee the group’s charismatic leader, Seth (Chris Messina), the starving fugitives begin to hallucinate — and then to doubt each other’s motives.
The writer-director team of Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite (making a strong feature filmmaking debut) don’t disguise the connections between Skylight and NXIVM. If anything, the movie’s biggest weakness is that much of the running time consists of Jillian and Blair’s exhausted conversations out in the wilderness, in which they recall what they went through in the cult: being forced to lose weight, to share secrets and to brand each other’s skin. At times, it’s like they’re reciting tidbits from the NXIVM Wikipedia page.
But an excellent cast and some skillful direction goes a long way toward making “The Aviary” feel genuinely revealing. Culler and Raite and their leads capture the ways the heavy fog of psychological manipulation can linger even for people taking active steps to dispel it. This fascinating and at times, frightening film’s starkest moment of insight comes when Jillian and Blair realize the liberation they feel in trashing Seth is itself a trap. Even hating their abuser is a form of caring about him — and thus another kind of control.
Rated: R, for language and some violent content
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Available on VOD; starts April 29, Lumiere Music Hall, Beverly Hills