Think of the person you love the most. Maybe it’s your parents, your child, your wife or husband. Whoever it is, the unavoidable truth is you can never really know who they are. You will never 100% know what they’re thinking, what drives them or what they want. All acts of love, to some extent, demand a leap of faith — faith that they won’t lie to you, hurt you, cheat on you, abandon you, or any of the other infinite damages humans inflict on each other. The horror-thriller What Keeps You Alive, a stylish if too indulgent psycho-drama, extrapolates that universal fear to operatic heights via a cat-and-mouse game of survival between a woman and the wife she never really knew.
Directed by Grave Encounters and It Stains the Sand Red helmer Colin Minihan, What Keeps You Alive centers on married couple Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson), who are celebrating their one-year anniversary at Jackie’s remote lakeside family cabin. When they arrive, Jules spins around in wonder, taking in the rustic charm of her wife’s impressive family estate. Meanwhile, Minihan’s camera lays a trap for viewers, making a point of the weapons and animal heads that line the walls. We think we know where this is going, that some trap is sprung from the past, waiting to catch them both. But a third of the way through, Minihan delivers a genuinely shocking moment of violence that changes the stakes entirely and sets the stage for a brutal, twisting exploration of emotional revelation rooted in the danger of secrets and the regret of trusting the wrong person.
Not long after the couple arrives at Jackie’s estate, Jules begins to realize just how little she actually knows about the woman she loves. Jackie tells a somewhat terrifying story about the first time her father took her hunting, teaching her never to kill for sport. Later, she sings a haunting song called “Bloodlet” that’s all about the demons that need to be let out, and boy does she seem to mean it. Understandably, Jules sees her wife as talented, not terrifying. That is until one of Jackie’s old neighbors show up with a story about their childhood friend who died under mysterious circumstances and the knowledge that Jackie’s name isn’t actually Jackie. Jules begins to realize her wife is someone very different from the person she thought she married.
From there, the film escalates rapidly, and ultimately the most significant element holding What Keeps You Alive back is pacing. Things move quickly at first, and then all too slow. When the first punch of violence arrives, it wallops, but after the halfway point, the film boils down to a reduced, stickier version of itself, where each new twist gums up the mechanics of what made the first half work so well. The characters make baffling decisions, both the hunter or the hunted, and they just keep going, outmaneuvering and thwarting each other’s intentions like a revolving door of violence and betrayal. It’s relentless and brutal, and while their most dangerous game is thrilling to watch, the underpinnings of their behavior grow so illogical and foolish it becomes harder and harder to root for either of them.
Still, Minihan crafts tension well, and he endows What Keeps You Alive with a welcome boost of artful panache beyond what you expect from the standard low-budget survival thriller. A particular purple-lit, sonata-scored sequence teeters into indulgent over interesting, but there are more bold strokes that pay off than those that don’t. A second-floor fight scene, shown only from the vantage point of a first-floor perspective, is particularly effective, leaving us to watch the ceiling tremble and shake, each thud increasing the anticipation of who walks down the stairs victorious. Another bold moment showcases Jackie’s skill and taste for murder in a shocking, artful sequence of bloodshed when two foolish neighbors come calling for dinner.
The film’s soundtrack does itself little favors, opting for classical music you’ve heard in film at least a million times before, and in a truly baffling decision, in our year of the lord 2018, Minihan opts to make Silverchair’s ‘Anthem for the Year 2000’ his power song. As a one-time Silverchair diehard, I’ll admit a thrill to hearing my familiar middle school jam, but even so, I couldn’t help but chuckle when ‘Anthem’s big moment comes. The score, written by Allen (who also executive produces) fares a lot better.
What Keeps You Alive hinges on the battle between these two women, and both Allen and Anderson give game performances for what the script demands of them. It would perhaps be more interesting if Jackie were allowed more shades of grey than the relentless psychopath and perfect pretender of normalcy, but she makes a compelling villain and Anderson sells her sinister, imposing presence well. Meanwhile, Allen is like a walking open wound, both physically (she gets put through the ringer) and emotionally, the beat of her broken heart underscoring the action every step of the way.
Trust and betrayal are powerful, universal themes and What Keeps You Alive mines them well for intensity. The film could be sharper and tighter — ten minutes and at least four endings shorter — but the moments of success in What Keeps You Alive out-weight the film’s faults. It’s a fast-moving, vicious little thriller with two ferocious LGBTQ+ female leads (something of a rarity), but beyond the novelty of the film’s setup, it’s also often a technically impressive and viscerally shocking survival thriller that actually has something to say.