What Keeps You Alive
Majestic mountains, a still lake and venomous betrayals engulf a female married couple attempting to celebrate their one-year anniversary.
Hannah Emily Anderson
I’m sort of at a loss, as to whether his latest effort is a step up, or a step sideways. Let me give you the synopsis scoop, and then my full explanation.
Celebrating their one year anniversary, married couple Jules (It Stains the Sands Red’s Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson of The Purge series) get away to Jackie’s remote family cabin situated on a picturesque lake. They’re still learning about one another after a brief courtship and the subsequent one year together. But after only a few hours at the cabin, and Jackie sharing tales of her past (brought out by her return home), Jules will discover that there’s something far more sinister in store for this celebration weekend – beyond some relaxing fireside chats and casual dinners with the neighbors.
What Keeps You Alive feels almost like a pseudo-continuation of the characters/scenarios of 1987’s serial killer thriller Black Widow. That Bob Rafelson film, which starred Debra Winger and Theresa Russell, is famous for the lesbian undertones, as well as the very obvious lesbian kiss between these two actresses. And there’s a line of dialogue in the film which perfectly captures the essence of this current effort. Debra Winger (an FBI agent on the tail of potential murderer Theresa Russell) says to a colleague, “What part do you think a woman is not up to? The seduction or the murder?”
And I think that What Keeps You Alive’s (semi) unusual take on the slasher/mystery/thriller genre (a female antagonist) is a great selling point – if not wholly original. But it’s better than the usual male killers with mommy issues, so…
Some of the uses of symbolism throughout – end up coming back in spades, and working like charms. Others don’t quite gel as I would have hoped, and so it feels incomplete. I got the symbolism (I’m with you Colin), but they don’t have the force I would have wanted to really drive them home. The crow/eagle is a prime example. I’m not lost, but it didn’t quite work.
In the just-plain-old-reality categories, I had a few problems with the fact that Jules failed to take action, when she had the opportunity. The case could be made for shell-shock, and based on the horrific injuries she’s dealing with – inaction could be justified. But there was one particular, very conscious choice which Jules makes – for which I can find no justification. She’s on the verge of potential safety, and Jules makes that choice to basically blow said opportunity. I had a hard time buying this one. And this shift made the film feel a little cracked, sort of disjointed. Something happened here with the pacing, and I didn’t care for it.
On a positive note, there are a couple of scenes in this film which totally blew my mind. Perfectly acted, shot, conceived – they work on that all-to-infrequent level of perfection which we so desire in our film-going experiences.
The first is a fantastically tense and beautifully shot sequence (paired with some exciting music cues) on the open water of the massive lake where the house resides. It involves two boats and a chase. I’ll say no more than that – other than, “I loved, loved, loved this scene!”
The second is Jules’ first true realization of Jackie’s true intentions and true interior. As Jackie searches for Jules in the woods – Jackie cries and calls out to Jules… until the moment when she doesn’t and her face goes blank. It’s an absolutely chilling moment for the audience, as well as for Jules herself. Without a doubt, my favorite scene in the entire film.
From there though, once Jackie’s true self is revealed – Anderson’s performance starts to fall short for me. It’s never bad, but started to flirt a bit with cliché. Cold, calculating and unemotional psychopath. Haven’t we seen this before, perhaps hundreds of times? She does it all well (yes, she’s creepy), but there was nothing new here as far as acting choices.
As for Brittany Allen, I loved her work in It Stains the Sands Red, but didn’t dig this one as much. The character never felt as developed as Molly (Allen’s character in It Stains) – and therefore, even a great actress like Allen can’t make up for what lacks in the writing. And I don’t know if I missed it, but was it explained early on that Jules is of the medical profession – ‘cause when she breaks out that first aid kit and goes to town – I was wondering where the exposition was to support that. Oh well. Allen also provided the score for this film – and it’s some wonderfully atmospheric work.
There’s also a problem with the chemistry between the two actors. The case could be made that this was intentional, based on what goes down and that some of what they share is simply an act, but I never totally bought these women as a couple.
The payoff/reasons for the entire film were rather flimsy. And if you’ve seen the aforementioned Black Widow – you’ll be familiar with possible motives. Not the most brilliant or original choice to justify – well, basically everything that supports the plot of the film.
I can’t wholeheartedly recommend What Keeps You Alive, but there are plenty of worthwhile bits to whet your appetite – decent performances, great production values and cinematography (aside from that camera/cameraman reflection early on – shame, shame) and a couple of “holy crap” moments.
But as far as Minihan’s best work so far – that honor stays with It Stains the Sands Red. However, I eagerly await the next project from this talented writer/director. I foresee big things for him in the horror genre.
Finally, I’ll direct you to the film’s pseudo-prequel if you’re in the mood for moody, lesbian serial killer thrillers, which is on the whole, more interesting. And since it’s from the late ‘80s, you’re gonna get some big hair and some massive shoulder pads. Bonus. So, Black Widow, it is.
What Keeps You Alive is now available on select VOD outlets and is playing in select theatres.