Married couple Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) arrive at Jackie’s childhood lakeside home to celebrate their one-year anniversary. However, an encounter with Jackie’s childhood friend brings out inner demons from her past – and sinister intentions for the weekend.
Premiering in New Zealand at NZIFF 2018, What Keeps You Alive has now been snapped up by Netflix. It bodes well for film lovers out there if the streaming giant keeps finding indie gems to bring to a wider audience. And while this one doesn’t have the impact to get you checking and re-checking if your partner is brandishing a hunting knife, it is a bloody good ride. There are plenty of twists and beautiful cinematography to enjoy as we watch the happily married couple switch to hunter and hunted – a refined turn for director Colin Minihan.
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Most famous for the pulpy Grave Encounters films, Minihan shows restraint and skill in fashioning a streamlined and exhilarating story of a marriage shaken to the brink by psychotic betrayal. Where better to have this potential death-iversary than a cabin in the woods? Classic thriller fare, but Minihan’s minimalistic camera work strips everything back, with low angle shots of towering trees and the massive lake belittling us and making us feel just as powerless as Jackie’s victims.
What Keeps You Alive walks an interesting line, ticking the boxes you’d expect in a psychological thriller while also smashing the gender conventions that come with those films. Yes, Jackie and Brittany are a same-sex couple. But, surprisingly, the film in no way plays up to this. It was one of the most naturally-portrayed onscreen relationships I’ve seen in a long time, a mark of good directorial work from Minihan by getting the best out two relatively unknown actresses.
With few other characters, Anderson and Allen needed to steal the show with their chemistry. And they succeed mostly, carrying What Keeps You Alive through its rough patches and leading the charge when its on-song. Their collapsing marriage, and subsequent game of cat-and-mouse for survival, is enthralling. If there is any minor fault found in their portrayals, it’s in how their characters work solo. Anderson doesn’t strike the same tricky balance as Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl – her psychotic personality is a little on-off and unsubtle. Allen, meanwhile, lacks the magnetism to fully draw us into her battle for survival.
The script is solid, hitting all the beats needed in a solid psychological thriller. We get slow-burning tension as secrets start to spill, nail-biting chases through the woods and a stand-off with a vintage shotgun. We even get the classic ‘returning to finish off the monster’ moment. But therein lies part of the problem. Instead of picking one path for his characters, Minihan takes us down multiple, uncertain about the ending he wants. It ultimately feels messy when compared with how sleek the rest of the film is.
What Keeps You Alive is a decent addition to the psychological thriller genre. Held together with solid performances, the story hits a few high notes and has a nearly perfect ending, but it evens out with a script that tries to cram too much into the odd last 20 minutes. Sometimes less is more.
This gritty, well-shot domestic gone wrong loses its way in the woods towards the end but keep the blood pumping. 6.5/10.