A subtle and resonant joke drives What Keeps You Alive: In the midst of trying to kill one another, Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) habitually return to the site of their marriage’s dissolution, a cliff in the middle of the woods where Jackie grew up. This narrative recurrence is irritating, in the manner of a nightmare in which you run in circles trying to elude a pursuer, and poignantly suggestive of how relationships can hit a sticking point that’s impossible to circumvent. And so this cliff unexpectedly informs the film’s stalk-and-slash mechanics with metaphorical undertow.
What Keeps You Alive appears to find writer-director Colin Minihan on the verge of outgrowing the self-conscious “cabin in the woods” tropes of films such as Extraterrestrial. Here, Minihan evinces some interest in the nuances of character relationships, and quite a bit of the film’s foreshadowing is elegantly misleading and retrospectively haunting. There’s a lingering shot of Jackie overlooking the pivotal cliff, before the rules of the film’s game have been established, that suggests she’s lost, perhaps under the sway of a demonic entity. And Jackie is lost in a sense, as she’s a psychopath incapable of human connection, and so the significance of the first image of the cliff changes as the film reveals her to be a killer rather than a victim.
Minihan props up Jackie as the “guy” in this relationship and in the film at large—a hunter, sometimes clad in military gear, who picks off those weaker than her with a phallic knife. This gender reversal gives What Keeps You Alive a nasty and tantalizing charge. The Descent also offered this disreputable thrill, and Minihan correspondingly indulges in Neil Marshall’s propensity for framing beautiful female faces in darkness splattered with bodily fluids. (This was a motif that Marshall lifted from Brian De Palma’s Carrie, the ultimate horror film by a male director on the subject of female power.)
What Keeps You Alive benefits, above all, from Allen’s shatteringly naturalistic performance. Allen isn’t playing a “final girl” running around willy-nilly out in the woods, but a betrayed wife facing a nightmare that forces her to confront her inferiority complex. A feeling of inferiority, after all, is the emotion that drives most films concerned with lying and killing spouses, as the intended victims in these narratives almost expect such a realization as an explanation for how such attractive and intelligent partners might be drawn to them. In What Keeps You Alive’s early scenes, Allen establishes Jules’s perpetual hunger for Jackie, further invigorating the film’s sense of foreboding.
If Anderson’s performance was as fully imagined as Allen’s, then What Keeps You Alive might have attained the emotional dimensions of a robust psychodrama. But Anderson fails to elucidate how Jackie’s façade of normalcy overlaps with the truth of her evil, instead playing Jackie as someone governed by an “on” and “off” switch as the plot demands. The film might have been more chilling if we were allowed to see that evil Jackie was in plain sight all along, and that her “good” persona existed as a mad person’s contemptuous parody of domesticity. Terry O’Quinn and Rosamund Pike achieved this sort of tricky tonal balance in Joseph Rubin’s The Stepfather and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, respectively. By contrast, Anderson and Minihan turn Jackie into a more comfortably familiar, nearly-un-killable monster, ultimately tethering What Keeps You Alive to formula.