What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Full disclosure, I was waiting to write this until I got copy done on Elizabeth Harvest so that I could link both that film and this one as having a connection to the Bluebeard fairytale (uh, spoiler alert, and also spoilers throughout), but as it turns out, Britnee already did a very positive write-up of that film a couple of years back, so I don’t have to! We are in agreement: Elizabeth Harvest is great! 

Also great is the modernized, queer update What Keeps You Alive! Hannah Emily Anderson stars as Jackie, opposite Brittany Allen as Jules. The film follows the two of them to a remote lake house for a retreat for the couple’s one year wedding anniversary. Things feel a little “off” right from the outset, but no more so than you would expect from any film that follows a couple going to a “home” that looms large in the childhood of only one of them. Their diametric idiosyncrasies (including Jules’s fondness for metal music, which her wife hates) also contribute to the willingness to dismiss any awkwardness as simply a matter of character. This pervasive strangeness continues when across-the-lake neighbor Sarah (Martha MacIsaac) visits the rarely-occupied property out of neighborly concern and recognizes one of the women, calling her by a different name than the one by which we the audience know her. This prompts a tearful story about a childhood accident the following day, which is immediately followed by an attempted murder-via-cliff-push. The killer, assuming victory, practices a tearful phone call to the police while walking back to the lake house, revealing a deep and abiding sociopathy; elsewhere, her victim, who has miraculously survived, tries to escape. 

I’ll just call them “Bluebeard” and “Survivor” from here on out to keep this straight and to avoid spoiling which of the leads is the killer. I almost went with “Bluebeard” and “Victim,” but make no mistake: Survivor is not a victim. A very tense cat and mouse plays out following this first attempted murder, including some fun swerves that you won’t see coming. For a film that exists almost entirely in a limited locationthe house, the lake, the woodsthe film finds a way to steer into some unexpected stylistic choices. Of particular note is a blacklight murder scene cleanup scored to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, aka the Moonlight Sonata, and a half-dreamt reunion with a bloodthirsty bear. For a time, Survivor is recaptured by Bluebeard and kept alive for reasons that are justified internally, but really for the sole purpose of giving Bluebeard an actor’s showcase to show off just how quickly she can pivot from character to character, which is great both in concept and execution.

The film has had a pretty mixed reception. It flew under Swampflix’s radar, and we are a bunch with a fairly wide net of niche interests; there are a few of us I would have expected to have caught this film before now, so I’m surprised that it’s managed to get so many negative reviews. Rotten Tomatoes is an imperfect barometer even at the best of times, but this is one of those movies with a really rough critic/audience ratio (82%, 42%), and the number of 1-star ratings on the Google landing page for the film outnumber the 2-5 star ratings combined. The only negative review included in the body of the movie’s Wikipedia page, by Roger Moore of Movie Nation, takes umbrage with the Survivor’s Act III choices. I do understand this criticism; there’s a real bad case of Re-entering the Lion’s Den that functions as a narrative necessity to get Bluebeard and Survivor into the places where they need for the “checkmate” to occur, but which makes no sense as character choices. Ignoring that, however, there’s a really solid, unique action thriller at the core of this one that makes it worth seeking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond