This What Keeps You Alive review contains spoilers.
At first, it might appear Colin Minihan’s cat-and-mouse-chace movie What Keeps You Alive is serving up just another lesbian psychopath through the lens of a man, but Hannah Emily Anderson owns her psychoses. Admittedly, this reviewer is on record for having an affinity for villains and anti-heroes, but Jackie lays it out straight. She jokes about being a psychopath. She beams her narcissistic stare, sometimes directly into the camera, while remaining a bit offside, begging the audience to hate her.
The dark seduction begins early. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she sings a simple and increasingly hypnotic melody over a droning E minor chord. Anderson sells it. The song becomes a chant, a meditative conjuration of romance until it is unnervingly shattered by Brittany Allen’s Jules. She makes it look like she is so overtaken by the song she can’t help but jump into the arms of her girlfriend. But there’s something in the way she does it which feels like she wants Jackie to shut up with the singing already.
The film is a cross between the black widow character, who marries and kills, and human hunter scenario of The Most Dangerous Game. The 1932 film starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray was based on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Hounds of Zaroff,” about a wealthy recluse who hunts a man who washes up on the shore of his island. The scenario has been done several times, but the geekiest reference is probably the neighborly Squire of Gothos, played by William Campbell on Star Trek. Captain Kirk gets out of a hanging by suggesting his execution would be more sporting as a hunt. Jules gets several opportinities to take herself off the trophy wall, but each one is systematically eliminated.
Jackie is quite the hunter. She was raised to it. She goes out loaded for bear, and we even get to see her use her internal hunter’s instinct. She was taught, by her apparently very loving father, to only kill what keeps you alive. She takes this to heart when she goes out hunting her wife. Jules’ death means Jackie’s salvation. But Jackie does not waste her shot. At one point she has a deer in her sights. She lets it go because it is not her game. The sensual flashbacks show a playfulness as celebrations for the couple’s one-year wedding anniversary vacation turn ever more preposterous.
The makeup effects help Jules look like she’s been through an ordeal, the wounds stay fresh, as the blood congeals. The best gore effect is when Julie sews herself together again after she returns to the cabin. But the most emotionally effective one comes when Jackie is bathing her soon-to-be insurance payoff. She can’t drown her prey, not only would it be ungamely, it would also threaten her double indemnity clause. Even after a rather vigorous scrubbing, there are still spots of blood mere soap can’t clean. Luckily the mountain vacationers brought enough hydrogen peroxide, which can clean your wounds, bleach your hair, or kill you. Jules, who could have been a doctor, if she weren’t so insecure, learned enough about bubbles in med school to come up with a longer term solution to the predator in the cabin.
Conscience is the Jules’ Achilles heel, Jackie points out. And as a card-carrying member of the board of sociopathology, Jackie has none. Of course, Jules’ Achilles heel is also her actual heel after she get a big anniversary surprise on a cliff and can barely walk. Removed at the remote house her great-great grandfather built at the lake, Jackie is a creature of nature, and a force to be reckoned with. The first reckoning comes from her ex-girlfriend, Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), visits on the first night of the visit and brings up Jackie’s past life. Born with the name Megan, Sarah says Jackie dropped her given name when she embraced her sexual identity, but she really just dumped her safe childhood for her natural unsafe serial killer urges.
Jackie didn’t get where she is by following any family tradition beyond taking their hunting philosophy a little too literally. She was not an abused child, she is not possessed by some kind of demon, and even the insurance payoff is just petty cash. She is a rudderless sociopath at the crossroads of an uncertain future. The camera catches her looking longingly over the cliff, as she loses herself into what could be a demonic entity. She also talks very convincingly to herself while searching for Jules, but the only demon Jackie has inside herself is herself.
While Anderson slides into the abyss of mad movie monsters, Allen vacillates between a very naturally played unlikely survivor and a wounded lover, betrayed by a lie told by a wife who never loved her. What Keeps You Alive comes close to bridging the betrayals into a fully developed relationship, but pulls away to make the romance a one night stand with an uncomfortable old fiend.
The film offers an unapologetic anti-heroine which was written for a man. Anderson sells the character and the film. The real shame is she has to get up several times to do it, pigeonholing the film into the time honored monster-you-can’t-kill stereotype when it could have captured new ground. What Keeps You Alive builds suspense with proper payoffs, but doesn’t offer the kill shot. Jackie may have to do that herself as well.