For its first half hour, give or take, What Keeps You Alive is a fakeout. Writer-director Colin Minihan studiously tries to make his movie pass the duck test: It looks like a slow burn thriller, moves like a slow burn thriller and withholds plot like a slow burn thriller. There’s foreshadowing of a sort, portents of amorphous danger, but mostly the film plays coy and the audience reluctantly relaxes.
Then abruptly, viciously, unceremoniously, Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) shoves her wife Jules (Brittany Allen) off a cliff’s edge in the middle of remote backwoods nowhere and leaves her for dead. You’ll hear a figurative needle scratch at this jolting beat. Suddenly, What Keeps You Alive becomes an entirely different film, no longer posing the frankly trite genre question of “how well do you know your spouse,” instead coldly fixating on Jules’ fight to survive alone in the forest while the woman she loves stalks her like an animal. Marital bliss gives way to bloody Darwinism. May the fittest win, and as we wait on the outcome of that contest, may Jules do her damndest to stay off of Jackie’s radar.
Jackie, unlike What Keeps You Alive’s opening chapter, doesn’t screw around. Sure, she likes playing the long con: She takes her time getting to the fun part, the “fun part” being the part where she betrays Jules to torment and death for her own entertainment. But Jackie is a practiced murderer and an even more accomplished actress. Post-shove, she returns to her family cabin, where hours ago she and Jules had been enjoying a romantic weekend getaway to celebrate their one year wedding anniversary. She looks in the mirror. She rehearses her routine for calling in Jules’ “accidental” death to the authorities. Then she goes back to the scene of the crime and finds Jules’ body has vanished. The chase begins.
What Keeps You Alive knows what keeps us on the book. Minihan has a strong sense of how much buildup is enough, teasing out mystery over Jackie’s change in mood once the couple arrives at the cabin. She broods, grows introverted and introspective, and starts telling Jules old, chilling tales about her childhood hunting expeditions with her dad. Jules has never heard these before, and hearing them raises red flags for the audience. Too bad Jules is color blind. Maybe she sees the warning in Jackie’s nostalgic recollections of her first kill. Maybe she doesn’t. Minihan is careful not to show his hand, so when Jules turns to see Jackie charging at her, violence in her eyes, the shock is as much hers as it is the viewer’s.
Another filmmaker might have dragged the preliminary tension out too long and wasted its anxiety-inducing power. Minihan doesn’t have that problem. Instead, he has the opposite problem, where the post-reveal tension overstays its welcome. Robbed of the perfect crime by Jules’ stubborn will, Jackie resorts to mental violence, but her mind games don’t justify the film running another 80 minutes. They certainly don’t flesh her out as a character. Like Michael Myers, she’s well bred, inexplicably evil, which is plenty scary in the right movie and tiresome in this one. What Keeps You Alive isn’t a body count movie. It’s a psychological movie, and in this case the psychology would have benefitted from actual backstory. There’s not enough to Jackie’s sociopathy to hang a narrative on.
Jules doesn’t understand why Jackie’s doing what she’s doing. To an extent she doesn’t need to. The movie does. What Keeps You Alive gamely alludes to the couple’s past via flashbacks, attempting to leave a breadcrumb trail leading toward its third act twist while filling in gaps about Jules and Jackie’s relationship, but the crumbs don’t satisfy. There’s no reasoning here. Maybe expecting reason from a cold, calculating sadist is a dead end. Still, Minihan never gives motivation more arresting than “because.” If there’s truth to that motivation, there’s little drama, and even less as Jules gradually backslides from capable and proactive to helpless and reactive. “Captive woman fights back against her captor” is a fine premise, but only as long as the captive actually fights back. Jules just knuckles under.
Still, What Keeps You Alive’s forthright quality feels refreshing, and Minihan’s craft is a major plus, too. A mortal struggle between Jules and Jackie is heard, not seen, as Minihan aims his camera up at the ceiling on the cabin’s ground floor. He tracks across the beams, capturing the bumps and thuds of protagonist and antagonist scrapping with each other. Gestures like that make What Keeps You Alive worth watching on their own merit. Nothing elevates genre better than sharp filmmaking. Sharp writing helps, too. At least What Keeps You Alive has the former.
Director: Colin Minihan
Writer: Colin Minihan
Starring: Brittany Allen, Hannah Emily Anderson
Release Date: August 24, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.