This review contains mild spoilers.
Is it possible to ever fully know a person?
Sure, we can attempt to form relationships, approximate a kind of understanding and familiarity. Maybe even really love somebody unconditionally. But short of tearing into flesh and muscle, pulling away the literal surface of a person to truly get to grips with who they are on the inside, can we ever really know what they harbor in their heart?
You might think so. What happens if you’re wrong? What happens when the person you think you know most intimately isn’t who they say they are? What if that person is your spouse?
These paranoid anxieties lie at the heart of Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive, a harrowing and darkly comic tale of betrayal and cat-and-mouse savagery.
When Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) decide to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary with a romantic weekend at a remote cabin belonging to Jackie’s family, they’re anticipating a peaceful retreat. However, after Jackie’s childhood friend Sarah unexpectedly turns up on their doorstep, things get a little…weird. For one thing, Sarah refers to Jackie as “Megan.” Then there’s her allusions to Jackie’s mysterious past — the one Jules knows nothing about. Before long, Jules starts to realize the woman she loves is hiding more than a few secrets, a realization that comes with deadly serious consequences.
At the outset, What Keeps You Alive establishes itself with an easy familiarity. As Jackie and Jules arrive at the cabin, they swiftly enter familiar genre territory: isolated location, an eerie quiet blanketing the grounds. We’re granted a window into their relationship, with some tender, humanizing moments pulling us in and lulling us into a sense of security, signaling the OK to kick back and wait for the inevitable slow-burn escalation.
Except from there, the film rapidly veers off course, taking a blindsiding turn into violence which plunges Jules —- and with her, the audience —- into an unforeseen personal hell. Minihan upends expectations and assuredly jumps right into the thick of the action, and it’s here that some of the film’s strongest elements come into play; cinematographer David Schuurman’s lenswork, erratic and invasive, assumes an active role, tracking Jules’ every move with an uncomfortable intimacy. Stomach-churning and immersive sound design and a lurching, lacerating score (composed by Allen) compound the assault, working in punishing unison to drag us down alongside Jules in shared confusion and betrayal. This sensory assault doesn’t often let up in What Keeps You Alive; Minihan effectively mobilizes the senses throughout, ensuring we’re never far from Jules’ ordeal.
Further, there’s some stunning action set pieces and extended sequences that lend the film some flair and edge: surprisingly sudden, unflinching violence that does not relent, a sprawling fight scene that plays out across multiple floors of a building, more than a few mesmerizing, acrobatic tracking shots, and finally, a stunning murder cleanup sequence lit entirely in blacklight. All of these flourishes are carried on the back of two solid lead performances from Anderson and Allen, who lay the necessary bedrock for the film in the heartbreaking nuances of their characters’ relationship. Anderson in particular is a standout, clearly relishing the unhinged impulsivity of the performance, flipping from loving and conciliatory to animalistic psychopath with startling precision.
Frustratingly, What Keeps You Alive does not maintain this consistency on other fronts. For a start, it clocks in at 98 minutes, but with its sometimes sluggish pacing, you wouldn’t be faulted for mistaking it for a longer film. Several moments feel like natural end points, treading some excess ground that could have benefited from slightly tighter editing.
Further, tonal shifts propel the film around nearly every turn, as it vacillates between serious thriller and tongue-in-cheek genre fun, but these shifts don’t quite cohere effectively. There’s a minor identity crisis playing out on screen; at times, Minihan leans hard into comical genre-awareness, brazenly winking to the audience —-a sudden fourth wall break and a heavily-stylized, over-the-top dinner party sequence being some of the clearest examples —- but conversely, so much else is played-for-straight that, at times, the disparity undercuts some of the tension, and it becomes difficult to make heads or tails of Minihan’s intent.
Arguably the most significant area of contention in What Keeps You Alive, however, is its most distinctive feature: the same-sex relationship at its center.
The major thematic preoccupation of What Keeps You Alive is the nature of identity and the limits of trust in relationships, and while the film explores these concepts quite thoroughly on one level, it leaves a missed opportunity for deeper exploration in a queerer sense. Though Minihan chose to center a lesbian couple in this film, which sadly makes it atypical for this genre, this choice seems purely incidental; either Jackie or Jules could be replaced with a man and it would make no impact on the story. For some, this could be construed as a net positive; a normalizing choice which highlights the mundanity of relationships of every shade. But given that so much of queerness involves performance —— specifically, the construction and acting out of an identity in order to better fit into the world around us —- and given how much of this film’s plot echoes precisely this performance of identity, there’s an implicit connection to queer experience here that is, disappointingly, never emphasized in any clear or meaningful way, despite having all of the tools to do so. What could have been a subversive queering of a typically heteronormative horror template turns out to be regrettably business-as-usual.
Ultimately, What Keeps You Alive is a somewhat uneven but nevertheless entertaining “cabin in the woods” style genre excursion that swings for the fences and hits more than it misses. It deserves a watch, especially in a theater, where some of its strongest qualities (striking visuals, immersive sound design) will surely be augmented. Just maybe don’t see it with your spouse.
What Keeps You Alive arrives on VOD and opens in theaters nationwide on August 24th from IFC Midnight.