What Keeps You Alive is an effective and brutal film.
Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive is a tidy little thriller that puts a lesbian spin on the classic “black widow” subgenre of murder mystery. It’s a lean film, which is a credit in terms of the overall production that, for the most part, is effectively utilitarian. Ultimately, however, a lack of substance in the script holds the film back. The film is significantly aided by its haunting forest setting, filmed effectively by debut cinematographer David Schuurman, and a creepy musical score by one of the film’s lead actresses, Brittany Allen.
What Keeps You Alive follows Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Allen) as they celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary at a remote cabin in the Canadian wilderness owned by Jackie’s family. There is a change in Jackie from the moment they arrive, and several early revelations frame the film as horror thriller rather than subtle chiller. Poor Jules is repeatedly traumatized, while we continue to learn more about Jackie’s dark secrets. As it turns out, Jackie was married to another woman before Jules, and their relationship was far from healthy.
It’s really quite progressive to have a married same-sex couple at the center of any film, but particularly one that doesn’t necessarily revolve around their homosexuality. The film doesn’t congratulate itself on its inclusivity, which is refreshing. Also progressive is that the film is basically a two-hander and both primary characters are women. Minihan, who wrote and directed, deserves credit for creating a movie based on two dynamic women.
In many ways, What Keeps You Alive resembles 2016’s underseen Always Shine. But its Lynchian inspirations aren’t as well realized and it lacks subtext, and that’s really the largest of What Keeps You Alive’s problems. There isn’t a lot beneath the surface here. Though it is quite effective with what it aspires to do, the film would have benefitted from a script willing to dig more deeply into both lead characters. Though Jackie gets a relatively robust backstory, what little nuance the character has comes from the actress rather than the script. And Jules gets even poorer treatment, spending most of the film bruised or bloody without getting the benefit of a rich backstory.
Minihan’s directorial skills are strong, particularly with regard to keeping the film moving and spacing the scares out effectively. Aside from the occasional, overly-artsy flourish, his filmmaking is taut and crisp. His writing proves to be more troublesome, and he should have brought in a collaborator to beef up the script. Too much of the story is told through expository dialogue. Where he is aided, though, is with his two main actresses, who both turn in effective performances. Anderson initially appears to be overdoing it as the murderous Jackie, but what seems to be overacting is eventually revealed to be a part of the character. In the other role, Allen does particularly well with the physical side of her role, crafting Jules into someone who attempts to appear physically tough as a mask.
Overall, What Keeps You Alive is an effective and brutal film, one that keeps its momentum right through its startling end. However, there is a bit of missed potential here, and if writer-director Colin Minihan would have been willing to dig deeper into his characters, the film could have been much stronger.