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‘What Keeps You Alive’ – A Stylish, Nerve-Racking LGBTQ Thriller

Writer/director Colin Minihan’s third feature ditches the horror and sci-fi elements found in his last two directorial efforts (Extraterrestrial and It Stains the Sand Red) to deliver a cabin-in-the-woods survival thriller about cold-blooded betrayal. What Keeps You Alive is far from original, but thanks to the terrific leads and stunning visuals, this is in many ways his best work yet — and that’s saying a lot given his impressive track record thus far.

Brittany Allen and Hannah Emily Anderson star as Jules and Jackie, a young couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary with a trip to a remote lakeside house. At first, everything seems fine, but the unexpected arrival of Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), a neighbour from across the lake, has Julie somewhat confused. It turns out that Sarah calls Jackie by a different name, leaving Julie wondering why this is, and what this new arrival’s relationship is to her spouse is. From that moment, Jackie (if that even is her real name) begins to show even more signs that something isn’t right; what dark secrets could she be hiding?

Unfortunately, it’s hard to review What Keeps You Alive without revealing the shocking revelation that will pit the two women against one another. That said, the promotional material released for the movie doesn’t try to hide it either, since the whole film hinges on the fact that one of these two women is indeed psychotic. Needless to say, the couple’s wedding anniversary takes an unexpected turn fall when Jackie abruptly pushes Jules off a cliff. Luckily for Julie, the fall does not kill her, but she still has a long way to go in order to ensure her survival. What follows is a nerve-racking cat and mouse chase that had this critic glued to the screen.

What Keeps You Alive is a visually stunning film.

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What Keeps You Alive wisely takes its time (but not too much) introducing the two ladies with care. At its heart, this is a movie about heartbreak and betrayal, and Colin Minihan’s economic direction allows us to take a peek into the couple’s loving relationship before things fall apart. With a few flashbacks and a gentle opening, we learn all we really need to know about their history, while Minihan cleverly hints at the terror to come by placing visible weapons around the remote cabin, and introducing a few red herrings before the shit hits the fan. Will the missing insulin make an appearance later on? What about the gun above the mantel or the noose hanging on a wall? This might seem like notes applied to a screenwriting 101 class about Chekhov’s gun, but I can’t stress just how great of a set up it really is. Everything, at least in the first half of the pic, is carefully implemented to create a sense of uncertainty among the audience. Had you not heard anything about this movie, or read this review, or even watched a trailer, you’d be forgiven in thinking that maybe the threat would come from the outside. But that just isn’t the case.

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As far as the thrills go, What Keeps You Alive isn’t shy when applying a fine layer of gory practical effects. In the most shocking scene, Julie sews her wounds shut using only a string and pliers while desperately trying to remain silent. Needless to say, there’s a lot of blood spilled, and I suspect one or two scenes will have some sensitive viewers running for the exit. But this isn’t really a horror film so much as a good thriller, and thankfully there’s plenty of suspense to be found. In one particular highlight, a fight scene is staged entirely through sound design, while keeping most of the action out of frame as the camera follows the sounds coming from the floor above (further proof that sometimes the best way to scare an audience is to let them imagine the terror themselves).

What Keeps You Alive is a visually stunning pic thanks to David Schuurman’s moody cinematography, which creates a sense of urgency and realism. Schuurman and Minihan capture some truly beautiful images amidst the horror, such as the early overhead shot of Jackie and Jules canoeing across the lake, and a beautifully lit sequence in which Jackie serenades her wife by the fireplace. Towards the end, Minihan slows down the action for an ingenious blacklight sequence (and let’s not forget the rowboat chase that doubles as a commentary on power dynamics). From the aerial photography to the tracking shots to the extreme close-ups, Minihan makes excellent use of his geography by making everything seem claustrophobic, even in the great outdoors. Say what you will about the script; one can’t deny the power of its visuals.

If you’re looking for a survival thriller that doesn’t slow down until its final gasps, look no further.

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If there’s a message to be found in this movie, it might come when Jackie tells Julie that you never really know what’s going on in another person’s head, even if it is the person you love. Julie does suffer physical harm, but it pales in comparison to her feelings of betrayal and heartbreak. We see Jules, like so many abuse victims, trying to make sense of it all. Even when she is beaten and bloodied, you can still see she cares, and that’s what makes this movie stand out from the thousands like it. Of course, it helps that Minihan knows how to get the most out his cast, and Brittany Allen’s stunning performance cannot be understated. She truly is fantastic here, and the movie wouldn’t work without her commitment to the physicality of what her character must endure. (It should be noted that What Keeps You Alive was shot deep in the woods of Muskoka, Ontario in only twenty days and throughout cold weather conditions.)

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What Keeps You Alive does have some frustrating character beats and a few moments that require its characters to make stupid decisions in order to stretch out the paper-thin plot, but these small missteps don’t outweigh the clever direction, relentless rhythm, strong performances, and stunning imagery the movie offers (I especially love how the cliff acts as a metaphor for their relationship).

If you’re looking for a survival thriller that doesn’t slow down until its final gasps, look no further. Colin Minihan may not be a household name, but he’s a rising star in Hollywood, and with What Keeps Us Alive, he’s now directed three movies well worth your time.

– Ricky D

Written By

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the Sordid Cinema Podcast and NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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