What Keeps You Alive Movie Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Released by IFC Midnight
Written and directed by Colin Minihan
2018, 100 minutes, Rated R
Released on August 28th, 2018
Hannah Emily Anderson as Jackie
Brittany Allen as Jules
Martha McIsaac as Sarah
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it as long as it’s true: the reason most of us reviewers keep watching mediocre indie films is because the occasional gem that lands on our reviewing pile makes us forget all the garbage we’ve watched. What Keeps You Alive is one of those rare films that helped me forget about the bad stuff that preceded it. A creepy, bloody, ultraviolent look at madness that kicks off as a simple tale of a couple spending some days in a cabin, this movie possesses an eerie atmosphere, a superb twist, and enough brutal scenes to satisfy most horror movie fans.
Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) are a happily married couple. They head to an old family cabin by a lake that Jackie’s family used to occupy for a few days of relaxation. However, the mood changes the moment they get there. Jackie is somewhat distant, almost as if being in the cabin has triggered something inside her. The situation quickly escalates and Jules learns that something is very wrong with her wife. After a violent act makes it clear that Jackie isn’t who she appears to be, Jules is forced to start fighting for her life. What follows is a gory, tense, strange, and emotionally draining movie about insanity and survival.
The first thing that’s great about What Keeps You Alive is the atmosphere. The happy couple thing only lasts for a bit at the beginning of the movie, and then things get strange. Once they do, they never stop being wrong. We don’t know exactly what’s wrong with Jackie, but the danger she represents makes us forget about her reasons and shift our focus to survival, just like Jules. Also, the setting, with its trees and dark water, serves as a magnifying glass for the sense of unease caused by the violent turn of events.
The second thing that makes this movie an outstanding rarity is the balance between physical acts and the psychological aspects of abuse and murder. Oftentimes films favor one over the other, but director Colin Minihan managed to create a narrative in which both aspects are equally present: shaking fear and chopping of bodies, mental games and broken fingers, tense conversations that might lead to salvation and brutal, somewhat Giallo-esque slashing of throats. Minihan also shines a spotlight on the idea that we never truly know people, even when we spend a lot of time with them. That weirdness or secret or unknown behavior can be amplified when they return to places that mean something to them. This idea is central to this story, and the director explores it well.
There are some elements of What Keeps You Alive that make it stand head and shoulders over most contemporary indie horror movies. The first one is the female-female relationship at its center. No, I’m not talking about the two main characters being lesbians; I’m talking about the crazy killer that destroys everything in its path being a female. Forget the final girl, this is about the maniacal woman chopping bodies to pieces with an ax while she makes her wife watch and blames her for what’s happening.
The second element is the fact that this movie bridges the gap between the hardcore horror movies most of us love and the arthouse horror that’s so prevalent today in which all we get from a film is the same cliched message about people being the real monsters. In here, a woman is the only monster, but instead of hiding away during the entire movie, she is a monster almost from the start, a monster with a past, and a monster whose past is as dark as her present.
The third and last element worthy of attention is the quality of the production values. This is an indie film, but one that puts many movies with much bigger budgets to shame. It’s nicely shot, the performances are solid, the dialogue is convincing, the scenery is beautiful even if its perennially gloomy, and the gory scenes are fantastic. When taken along with the things already mentioned, the end result is a great movie that deserves every ounce of buzz surrounding it and one that has definitely place Colin Minihan on my radar. I eagerly away whatever he does next.