“You only kill what keeps you alive.”
Love can sometimes blind you to decisions both dumb and dangerous, and for two women celebrating their one year anniversary as a married couple that’s about to become a very harsh lesson. Writer/director Colin Minihan leaves behind the supernatural (Grave Encounters) and apocalyptic (It Stains the Sand Red) to deliver his best film yet with a tale that grounds its terror against a more realistic landscape.
Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) come to a remote house in the woods for a weekend celebration of their love. The well-appointed cabin belonged to Jackie’s grandfather, but she hasn’t been back up in years — something Jules discovers when a “neighbor” from across the lake comes calling late one night. The fact that Jackie was previously known as Megan is only the first piece of information that Jules learns about the love of her life. The next might actually leave her with no life at all.
What Keeps You Alive wisely affords its first act to introducing protagonists with care and affection before shifting gears and becoming a tight little tale of survival. There are some bumps along the way, but it’s more often than not a compact, well-shot thriller that highlights the danger of making promises “til death do us part.”
The aforementioned bumps come in three varieties. Most egregious and commonplace is the abundance of lazy music stingers meant to tell audiences when to jump, be scared, and have a reaction. The practice isn’t unique to Minihan’s filmography, but he does seem overly reliant on its use. There are some frustrating character beats too as more than once they allow violence to happen without even trying to fight back. Lastly, and least(ly), the end goes on a bit too long after what feels like a natural conclusion. It’s not a major issue, but it lessens the punch of what comes before.
Happily, though, the film’s strengths outweight the weaknesses thanks to attractive direction, tight writing, and a pair of compelling lead performances.
Minihan and cinematographer David Schuurman take good advantage of their forest setting, and while it’s not a horror film in the traditional sense there’s a clear unease moving between the trees. Heartbreak, shock, and fear combine to leave Jules and viewers alike on edge, and the cat and mouse game that ensues is emboldened by the beautiful and natural backdrop. The large cabin is equally present from the opening single-take exploration of its interior to shots reveling in its isolation.
Characters haven’t always been Minihan’s strong suit as evidenced by Grave Encounters‘ disinterest in them and It Stains the Sands Red‘s fumbling of them. The latter also features a lone woman facing off against a mostly singular threat, but personalizing her through a violent act backfires for viewers. Here, though, we’re drawn immediately into the joy of our main couple, and while it’s clear they’re still not entirely comfortable and content we can’t help but care. Jules in particular, aided equally by both the script and Allen’s performance, quickly becomes a character we pull for, cheer for, and on one occasion breathe for. She’s no doe-eyed innocent, but her uphill battle is as emotional as it is physical.
What Keeps You Alive isn’t flashy or loud (aside from those damn stingers) in announcing its presence, but it’s s solidly enjoyable thriller all the same. The villain earns our hate, the hero finds our support, and the ending reminds viewers of where we began. Love is a powerful motivation for survival.
[Editor’s note: Our review originally ran during SXSW 2018.]