“Majestic mountains, a still lake and venomous betrayals engulf a female married couple attempting to celebrate their one-year anniversary.” — IMDb
What Keeps You Alive is another awesome piece of work from Canadian-American director Colin Minihan (who, along with Stuart Ortiz — the pair call themselves The Vicious Brothers — wrote and directed 2011’s Grave Encounters). It’s a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching watch that explores a fear we all share to some degree: what if we don’t truly know the person we claim to love? It’s one of those movies where you can really feel the care that went into each scene from every person involved. The cinematography is beautiful (with some truly standout moments), the acting is top notch, and the story — while not totally unique — is smartly played.
** SPOILERS! **
Honestly, I knew I’d like this movie from the get-go, both from the Silverchair song blasting from the Jeep as they arrive as well as the 2+ minute long extended take of Jules touring the family cabin. It had the simultaneous effects of making me feel like I was on the tour with her — this sort of comfortable, homey vibe — as well as emphasizing this claustrophobic feel, like the walls are closing in.
We definitely get the idea that Jackie is far from a loving wife right off the bat, both from her odd choice of a serenade song (“there’s a demon inside/better run for your life”) and from her reminiscing rather fondly about killing a black bear in her youth and watching the “life slowly fade from her eyes”.
This is when we hear her utter the titular phrase — “you only kill what keeps you alive” — and while it seems to tie in with her later assertion that she is only offing Jules for insurance money, it’s obvious that there’s more to it than that. I’ve seen some reviews complain that her character needed more fleshing out, that we needed some kind of back story to make sense of it all, but I think it makes her that much more terrifying. To think that she kills simply for the sake of it — the money is merely a bonus, a means to keep her going — means she is beyond redemption, and therefore unhindered by any remorse or sorrow.
She confirms it herself when Jules asks her “what turned you into this monster?” and she responds with “it’s nature, not nurture”. The fear lies in not knowing a reason for evil. As brutal as humanity can be, we are able to compartmentalize it better if we have some kind of motivation. Even if we don’t understand the reason, or can’t relate to it, it makes it fit into our comfortable narrative if there IS one. But not this time.
The acting from both Brittany Allen and Hannah Emily Anderson was fantastic. It was completely necessary to convey such raw horror, and they pulled it off. Jackie rehearsing her 911 call in the mirror was chilling, and when Jules watches from a ditch as Jackie is calling out to her — distraught and worried initially but turning it off like a light switch to show her true annoyance — made my blood run cold. Jules’s shellshocked monologue during the very tense dinner as the guests exchange nervous glances — “and even though you can never know what’s going on inside their head — I mean, really know what’s going on inside — you take the leap anyway, and you hope for the best, and you just pray you won’t get the worst” — is the perfect summary for one of the fears this film touches on. We never truly know anyone, and yet we give our lives to someone — our trust, our security, our hope — just praying we won’t get the worst.
There are a handful of scenes that are just… exquisite. The row boat scene as they are dumping the body parts is particularly amazing — the cobalt blue sky with the two of them lit by a single lantern, silhouetted as Jackie looks over the edge at the sinking parcels, cutting to a drone shot of a cotton candy sunrise as the music swells to a determined rhythm, early morning fog over the still water as she confidently rows. Pretty fantastic. The montage of scenes lit solely by ultraviolet light, showing Jackie’s persistence in wiping clean all evidence of her crime, set to piano music. Their final battle inside the house, shot from the floor below with the camera panned up to the ceiling… all we have are muffled thumps and cries punctuated with wildly swinging light fixtures to imagine the desperate action up above. Perfect.
I’m undecided on how I felt about the ending, but I think ultimately it was fitting. Jules isn’t a cold-blooded killer, even when in self-defense. It would have defied her character to have her stab Jackie in the back or even push her off a cliff, even if she was doing it for an honorable reason — to stop her from carrying out this same torment on other women.
Ultimately, an amazing film and one that will have me keeping my eye on Colin Minihan. Oh, and Brittany Allen — the actress who played Jules — because not only can that woman act, but she SCORED the damn film!