'What Keeps You Alive': Film Review

Courtesy of IFC Midnight
Bloated when it should be lean and mean.
8/24/2018

A one-year wedding anniversary is murder for a lesbian couple in Colin Minihan's thriller.

A lesbian variation on "black widow" thriller tropes ("she marries — and kills!"), Colin Minihan's What Keeps You Alive sets itself up promisingly enough before succumbing to a progression of implausibilities and excesses that test even this genre's lenient standards. Sensitive in some respects but ultimately bloated and unconvincing, it may have some small success through specialized marketing to lesbian viewers — though most of this demographic would presumably be more forgiving if the pic weren't written and directed by a man.

Brittany Allen and Hannah Emily Anderson play Julie and Jackie, who are celebrating their first anniversary with a trip to a remote lakeside house built by the latter's great-great grandfather. The place's existence (and, as we'll learn, most of Jackie's life) was unknown to Julie, who falls immediately for its sprawling, cobwebby charm. It still has all the family's old decor, including an old rifle over the fireplace. And before viewers are done reminding themselves of Chekhov's dictum about rifles seen in the first act being crucial to the third, a modern variation follows: "Have you seen my insulin anywhere?" Minihan will offer us a couple more shots of that rifle later for anyone who can't take a hint, but for a time, it looks like the story's main threats will be psychological instead of physical.

The happy couple haven't even inaugurated the place with their first makeout before they're interrupted by Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), an across-the-lake neighbor who knows Jackie from childhood. Confusingly, though, when Julie opens the door, Sarah refers to Jackie as "Megan." The rest of the evening is less romantic than it promises to be — though viewers will have to imagine its tensions for themselves, since Minihan puzzlingly skips ahead to the next morning, when a hurt Julie wants answers about her wife's secret identity. Jackie explains that, when she realized she was gay, she stopped feeling like a Megan and changed her name. Fair enough, and the two are soon sufficiently reconciled to enjoy a little target practice out in the woods, which leads to a mildly unnerving story about Jackie/Megan's first experiences with killing large animals.

Further revelations and reassurances arrive soon after, and a viewer who walks into the film blind will likely have her curiosity stoked: What dark secrets are about to threaten the couple's happy relationship? (Necessary spoilers ahead.) For such a viewer, what happens next will be quite an effective shock: Out on a pleasant hike, Jackie abruptly pushes Julie off a high cliff.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to talk about Alive without revealing this attempted murder, since the whole film hinges on it. The fall, miraculously, does not kill Jules, who stumbles off in terrified disbelief before Jackie realizes she's botched the job. The initial cat-and-mouse is effective: We cut between scenes in which a too-close-for-comfort camera careens through the forest with Julie and calm, steady shots in which Jackie goes into assassin mode, stalking her prey like an animal. But then Julie manages to get back to the house while Jackie is looking for her in the woods, and the film begins to fall apart.

From here on, most of the script's tension derives from one character or the other doing something indefensibly dumb. Instead of barricading herself until help comes, Julie lets Jackie get back into the house; instead of keeping Julie under close guard (once she has inevitably captured her), Jackie frequently wanders off to let her create more trouble.

Minihan's direction of the actors is muddled, especially when it comes to Julie, whose waffling between paralyzed helplessness and defiant badassery presents more problems than Jackie's thinly imagined but consistent psychosis. The fake-endings and flimsy manipulations pile up, until the very last frame of the film — in which Minihan adds a sound cue likely to inspire derisive snorts from viewers who've gone with him thus far.

Production company: Digital Interference
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Hannah Emily Anderson, Brittany Allen, Martha MacIsaac, Joey Klein
Director-Screenwriter-Editor: Colin Minihan
Producers: Chris Ball, Kurtis David Harder, Ben Knechtel, Colin Minhan
Executive producers: Chirs Scordo, Stephen Klugman, Brandon Christensen
Director of photography: David Schuurman
Composer: Brittany Allen

R, 99 minutes