The simply mounted and nicely twisted Canadian thriller What Keeps You Alive mines a stripped down premise for delightfully malevolent gains. A cat and mouse game that unfolds predominantly between two lovers stuck in an increasingly violent battle, it gets a lot of mileage out of pitting two equally well written and cast forces opposite one another. It doesn’t have much going for it outside of that, but thanks to a clever script, two well cast leads, and some nifty stylistic trickery, What Keeps You Alive will keep more adventurous genre audiences sufficiently invested and on edge.
Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) are a lesbian couple who’ve traveled to a cottage in the woods to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Not long after arriving, however, clues begin surfacing that Jackie has a hidden history with this particular section of the wilderness, something that one of their closest neighbours (Martha MacIsaac) finds more than a little suspicious. Jules will quickly learn that Jackie isn’t entirely who she appears to be, and that a violent divide is about to open up in their previously idyllic relationship.
What Keeps You Alive is the third collaboration between Vancouver born writer-director Colin Minihan (Extraterrestrial, It Stains the Sands Red) and Torontonian Allen (who also provides the musical score here), and it’s their most thought provoking, sparse, and suspenseful partnering to date. It’s a hard film to talk about beyond the first twenty minutes, with the major inciting twist occurring early on, making the film’s further connecting swerves into a deck of cards that would crumble and be spoiled if one tried to explain it. Suffice to say, What Keeps You Alive works remarkably well at pitting two equal, but temperamental forces against one another in a battle that’s just as brainy as it is brawny.
Allen makes for a strong, likable heroine, balancing the film’s more physically demanding tasks with an underlying sense of sadness for the potential end of her character’s relationship. Anderson takes the more difficult role and runs with it perfectly, always staying barely one step ahead of Allen’s good-girl. The two have a great back and forth because Minihan has deftly found creative ways to keep shifting the power balance between the couple. For long stretches of time, Jules will get the upper hand over Jackie and vice versa. What Keeps You Alive isn’t the type of film where a villain will constantly torment the heroine, but one where the two are kept on more or less equal footing, with Minihan and the audience delighting in seeing just where the fight will lead next. It’s an emotionally brutal game to behold, but Minihan’s latest is all the richer for it. Even the film’s sole supporting cast members – both MacIsaac and Joey Klein as the neighbour’s hilariously doofy and oblivious husband – add to the mix nicely. What Keeps You Alive is a simple film that gleefully watches characters collide with each other instead of offering up a bunch of loosely strung together high-spot set pieces.
Although, Minihan proves quite good at staging the film’s more elaborate sequences, too. A dinner table sequence between all of the involved parties flows with an effortless grace and purposefully dramatic awkwardness that few genre films would bother to attempt. Flashbacks to happier times for the couple initially seem misty and frivolous, but Minihan makes them pay off splendidly. The film opens with a lengthy tracking shot following Jules and Jackie through their new vacation home, which is both technically accomplished and surprisingly necessary to the overall design of the film’s plotting. There’s also a pronounced sense of black humour throughout, especially in Minihan’s most visually and narratively inspired moment: a slow speed rowboat chase that’s as surreally silly as it is genuinely frightening. What Keeps You Alive is a deadly serious film that has an eye and ear for naturally occurring levity. While some of the film is nasty, gory, grim, and predictable (save for the well executed and telegraphed finale) these flashes of style and brilliance maintain audience investment throughout.
Much like Minihan’s previous works, it isn’t always an easy watch, and it’s sometimes bogged down by its own miserable sensibilities. What Keeps You Alive might be too restrained for hardcore horror fans, and it’s probably too unnerving to appeal outside of a few key demographics. That just makes Minihan’s latest all the more exciting to behold. With so few thrillers out there built around same sex couples, it’s refreshing to see one that’s rooted in more realistic and primal psychological urges and not something that’s built entirely around sexual desire and puerile fantasy. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but What Keeps You Alive remains a refreshing change of pace from the norm.
What Keeps You Alive opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, August 24, 2018. It’s available on VOD the same day.
Check out the trailer for What Keeps You Alive:
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