What would you do if the person you married isn’t who they said they were? That is the question that Colin Minihan‘s (Grave Encounters, Extraterrestrial) What Keeps You Alive aims to answer over the course of its 100 minutes. While it runs into some issues with pacing and could have used a firmer hand in the editing room, What Keeps You Alive is a simultaneously terrifying and (intentionally?) humorous tale of betrayal.
When Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson, fresh off her scene-stealing turn in last year’s Jigsaw) and Jules (Brittany Allen, also from Jigsaw and It Stains the Sand Red) go on a vacation to a remote cabin on their one-year anniversary, they are expecting a weekend of relaxation. Shortly after they arrive, Jackie’s childhood friend Sarah (Martha MacIsaac, The Last House on the Left) shows up on their doorstep and refers to Jackie as Megan, leading Jules to suspect that the woman she fell in love with has been keeping more than a few secrets from her. Before long, Jackie’s true nature becomes clear and Jules is faced with the ultimate betrayal.
To say any more about the plot of What Keeps You Alive would be a disservice to anyone reading this, so I’ll keep a tight lid on the proceedings of the film for the remainder of this review. Just know that there is much more to Jackie than meets the eye, and Jules is in for a rude awakening.
Minihan’s script doesn’t do anything particularly innovative beyond its first act reveal, but this is ultimately a study of how one woman handles a brutal betrayal and then fights to survive. The script does dip its toes into the nature versus nurture debate but never really dives deep into the issue, making the film a rather surface-level approach to the subject matter. Still, it is refreshing to see a lesbian couple at the forefront of a genre film, especially considering that their sexual orientation doesn’t play a factor into the plot at all. Horror films featuring mentally unstable queer characters all too often have that queerness play a part in their illness, but that is not the case with Jackie, which is a testament to Minihan’s script.
Anderson and Allen are believable as the supposedly happily married couple. Anderson chews scenery with glee as Jackie and it is an entertaining sight to behold; but it is Allen, so underserved in Jigsaw, who manages to steal the show. She is able to capture Jules’ feeling of betrayal and the immeasurable amount of sadness at what she is forced to face. She has been put in a horrifying situation and that horror is palpable when she is on screen.
Minihan and cinematographer David Schuurman work in some nifty camera tricks to help mirror Jules’ paranoia and disorientation (one particular instance in which the camera is strapped to an oar is particularly effective), as well as long takes tracking Jules’ movement around the isolated cabin. He is able to sustain a considerable amount of tension throughout, with a highlight being a rowboat chase sequence that is a lot more suspenseful than a rowboat chase sequence sounds.
One only wishes that Minihan had as skilled a hand in the editing room as he did in the directing department. Even at a brief 98 minutes, the film could afford to have a few minutes shaved off of it. It’s possible Minihan may have been too close with the project to cut what needed to be cut (he acts as director, screenwriter, editor and producer), so hiring someone else for the job may have been a wise choice.
Furthermore, several moments in the film manage to stretch credulity. Jules undergoes some heavy injuries that she recovers from a little too easily, and the final second of the film inspired a groan from this critic. You can see what Minihan was going for, but it just doesn’t work. The film also doesn’t completely seem to know what kind of tone it’s going for. Jackie’s dialogue can come across as a little mustache-twirly one moment and then terrifying the next. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the shifts in tone are sometimes jarring.
All in all, What Keeps You Alive is a solid thriller that works more often than it doesn’t thanks to the performances of Anderson and Allen. Those, combined with Minihan’s skilled direction, make for one of the better survival horror films to come out recently. Just don’t watch it with your spouse as it may plant a few seeds of doubt about who they really are.