Monday, May 29, 2023



Between the drama of David Koresh and Heaven's Gate at the prime of my young adult National Enquirer-reading hunger, the horror of cults has held a deep interest in my twisted brain. It was an odd phenomena of sorts in the '90s. In addition to real life horror stories, you had plenty of pop culture coverage. David Letterman couldn't tell enough purple sneaker jokes, The Simpsons nailed their own take, and forgotten bits of pop culture like NBC's The '70s miniseries dove in. 

Thankfully, the formative years of consuming media didn't actually send me to any real compounds, but as Netflix documentaries and indie films have discovered, people...well, they just love cults.

Naturally, when I see a new movie pop up in the horror section of Hulu with that as its tag, I'm all in. Much like any good follower...

Quick Plot: Jillian and Blair are on the run...well, more like a slow, steady hike. They're fleeing Starlight, a mysterious self-help organization ruled with steely calmness by Chris Messina's Seth. Armed with a meager collection of power bars and a suggestion of a map of their New Mexican mountains, the women set out under the unrelenting sun for freedom.

It doesn't take long for things to take a downturn. Jillian, a long-time member of Starlight who enjoyed the prestigious position of "engineer" under Seth's rank, quickly loses her confidence as the hallucinations kick in. The younger Blair, recruited for her trust fund and kept around for Seth's pleasure, doesn't have much faith in her own survival skills. They bicker about what to do with Seth's stolen laptop, which could punish their tormenter or lead him straight their way. There's also the mystery of what happened to Delilah, the mentor of sorts who served above Jillian before her own disappearance.

Boy does all of this sound promising, and golly does it not deliver! Written and directed by the team of Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite , The Aviary gave me nothing in the way of surprise or satisfaction. Malin Akerman and Lorena Izzo are doing their absolute best and clearly finding solidly interesting beats in their characters, but Cullari and Raite's script is so frustratingly vague that I found it impossible to care. You see exactly where the action is heading well before it gets there, right down to the climax that feels pre-ordained the moment characters start to question what they see. 

We've tread these grounds before, which the film even seems to know. The very decision to give no real detail or insight into Starlight feels as if the writers looked around at the pop culture fascination with cults and said, "nah, they know." Well, yes, we do, so maybe bring something new? And if not new, something involving?

High Points
The dynamic between the somewhat seasoned Jillian and angrier but more innocent Blair is interesting, and Akerman and Izzo really do hold your attention, even in a landscape where nothing is actually said

Low Points
Chris Messina is almost always the most interesting presence in anything he touches, but The Aviary's take on a typical cult leader is so tired that it's genuinely shocking how bland he i sin the role

Lessons Learned
You know you're in a cult if your institution involves levels, sashes, and a charismatic leader

Poisonous berries don't taste much worse than power bars

Like your sanity, laptop batteries don't last long under the desert sun

Whenever I feel this strongly negative about a film, I like to do a little bit of internet skimming to see where the rest of the digital world stands. It's certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes by way of "top critics" scores, and right at the mid-point for "audiences". What does that say? There's a certain sheen to this movie that looks good and makes it FEEL like it should be as well, but to me, it's a house of cards that collapses as soon as you start asking questions. Not a recommend, though I'd be curious to hear anyone who found more here than I did.


  1. I hadn't heard of this one but I might try it out just because I have a similar obsession with cults/cultists.
    As a somewhat related tangent, have you watched Yellowjackets? Any thoughts on that (I just finished season 2).

    1. It's definitely got some things going for it, so I'd be curious if you get more out of it than I did!

      And yes, came to Yellowjackets a little late, but am fully caught up. I like it, but it's not fully thrilling me the way I'd hoped. I find the 1996 story way more interesting than present day (particularly in season 2, where that half felt especially scattered). I've been burned be so many ambitious Lost-ish shows that I'm trying to temper my expectations, but if the creators are honest about their five year plan, I'm hoping it will all pay off. There's just so much talent there and things to love. I want it to live up to its potential!