On irreconcilable differences, new names, and new identities in Colin Minihan's bloody domestic tête-à-tête
What Keeps You Alive IFC Midnight
Director: Colin Minihan
Screenplay: Colin Minihan
Starring: Brittany Allen, Hannah Emily Anderson, Martha MacIsaac and Joey Klein
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
This certainly wouldn't be the first time a name change was the impetus for marital strife for a newly married couple. It is, however, hard to imagine one with a more violent outcome.
What unsettles Jules (Brittany Allen) on the first night of her weekend getaway celebrating her first wedding anniversary is not the sudden headlights that climb through the windows after dark. Nor is it the friendly face who shows up at the door. After all, it's her wife Jackie's family cabin - it only makes sense that she'd know some of the neighbors, and that a neighbor might even stop by at some point. No, what unsettles Jules is how the friendly neighbor, Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), so nonchalantly refers to Jackie as "Megan."
And just like that, the playful, euphoric swirl of the past year or two - the physical harmony, the implicit trust, the mutual sense of being known and understood - is broken. Jules doesn't even know quite how broken it really is. On her face you can see the wheels turning inside her head, forcing herself to reconcile this new, theoretically trivial piece of information. Forcing herself to accept Jackie's explanation about why she took a new name, and when, and why she never got around to mentioning it. Forcing herself to believe that things are still normal.
Then the next morning Jackie pushes her off a cliff to her presumptive death.
What Keeps You Alive could have been just another movie about a character discovering her significant other is not the person she thought she knew. It could have been just another movie about a cold sociopathic killer. Could have been just another cat-and-mouse thriller set in the woods. And yes, the film does more or less follow those playbooks, at least in broad strokes. But writer/director Colin Minihan is more interested in exploring the diverging psychological wavelengths of his erstwhile lovers - their perceptions and interpretations and expectations of one another. For Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson), the real downside of Jules surviving her fall off the cliff - and disappearing into the woods - is not that she has to work harder to finish the job and clean up her mess, but that she no longer has quite the same read on her wife as she previously did. She's created a different version of Jules. For as long as she's been putting her plans in motion - seducing Jules, earning her trust, marrying her, bringing her all the way out to this remote cabin by the lake - she made damn sure she knew her inside and out. She's as meticulous a con artist as she is a killer. Misjudging the lethality of the fall was her one mistake.
Once things are in motion - Jules having survived and crawled off somewhere in the woods; Jackie having discovered this and being forced to go hunting - the film becomes a careful strategic and observational back-and-forth. Minihan's shots of his two leads are so often about one trying to get a read on the other, trying to judge the other - predict her behavior, or re-examine it, or question it. And not just in the present-tense, either. We catch and re-catch glimpses of more tender moments from the film's earlier scenes, now recontextualized. He doesn't do this as a gratuitous juxtaposition of Before and After; the flashbacks exist along the same continuum of details and observations dictating their actions as hunter and hunted. You can get to know just as much about someone from remembering one moment as you can from witnessing another in the present. Pick up a signal, spot a weakness.
Alive's emphasis on the two women as intimate adversaries reframes the chase/capture/escape framework - and all the inevitable reversals that take place within it - as a sort of primal domestic conflict. Rather than in-control psychotic mastermind vs. hapless, resourceful victim just trying to survive, what we get is a competitive dance between two people who know how to figure each other out. The former scenario is certainly the version Jackie had in mind - what she wanted and fully expected it to be. And perhaps if Jules had fallen at just a slightly different angle, it would have been just that. Though Jackie never loses her cool even after losing sight of what she believed was her already-conquered prey, we also get the sense that her previous efforts - however many there have been, wives or otherwise - all went according to plan.
The film never shies away from the physicality and physical brutality of its violence, but it's smart enough to treat Jackie's murder attempt - and all ensuing homicidal impulses - as emotionally violative disruptions rather than physical offenses. And thus Minihan knows he must resolve this situation on those terms, with his psychological pitch overriding more practical choices. It's not about who winds up dead, or caught, or saved, or avenged - it's about these two settling their most irreconcilable difference. (That being that one of them tried to murder the other.)
It's not even about survival - at least not entirely, and certainly not in the manner that applies to most movies about people being hunted in the woods. There's a moment in which Jules can basically get away scot-free - she's survived, and freedom awaits her. Instead, she stops herself, and goes back. She chooses to engage. Escape, find the police, have her old flame arrested? Not an option. She chooses to let this thing play out, one way or another. 'Til death do us part and all that.
At least in this case, survival isn't the strongest impulse at work. Here, it takes a backseat to closure, one-upmanship, winning. The strength of Jules' character - electrically personified by Allen - is not necessarily in her ability to survive what has been done to her, or keep her wits about her in that event's aftermath. It's in her conscious decision to accept the rules of this most dangerous game and try to get the upper hand by whatever means necessary.
We only get to see a few minutes of Jules and Jackie as a normal, happy married couple. By the end of What Keeps You Alive, their intimacy is clearer than ever. We almost feel like we've been unwitting voyeurs of their first big fight.