Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Colin Minihan
Writer: Colin Minihan
Producer: Kurtis David Harder, Chris Ball, Ben Knechtal, Colin Minihan
Stars: Hannah Emily Anderson, Brittany Allen, Martha MacIsaac, Joey Klein
A couple confronts the truth about their relationship when a stunning revelation turns their woodland getaway into a fight for survival.
Filmmaker Colin Minihan possesses an exceptional eye for dissecting horror subgenres down to core essentials that routinely make them tick. His other eye then sees precisely how to rebuild from that blueprint using efficient, engaging style. End results regularly turn familiar formulas into fresh entertainment.
For my money, Minihan’s “Grave Encounters” (review here) remains the slickest, scariest haunted asylum “found footage” film in a pool flooded with countless careless peers. By reducing a post-apocalyptic outbreak scenario to one resilient woman and one persistent zombie, “It Stains the Sands Red” (review here) similarly injected inspiration into another done to death backdrop.
The catch-22 with this pattern of marking new footprints in trampled territories is that Minihan ends up handcuffed creatively due to common clichés that unavoidably travel within these premises. His movies are enjoyable and well conceived, yet their edges get dinged by telegraphed tropes sacrificing realism for cinematicism.
Minihan’s forest-set survival thriller “What Keeps You Alive” provides another case study. Kept taut using a duo of dialed in performances and a nearly relentless rhythm, the movie satisfies with straight razor suspense and sharply structured setups. However, intentionally Spartan scale stays so simplified, the screenplay has no better path than to run full speed into predictable beats.
SPOILERS FOR THE FILM’S FIRST ACT
Celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary, Jules and Jackie have arrived at a remote cabin from Jackie’s childhood for an outdoorsy holiday. Bags are unpacked. Broad smiles widen faces. And with under three minutes having elapsed since the title card, one of Jackie’s first questions to Jules is, “have you seen my insulin?”
This is more than a mere Chekhov’s gun. This is a straight up spoiler. My seat cushion has barely warmed and the first thing I’m told about Jackie is how she is more than likely going to be done in.
This example highlights how Colin Minihan is a self-aware writer/director simultaneously restricted by his plot’s inherent limitations. He knows he has to establish that Jackie is diabetic while placing a needle in the toy box for later. But he hides this reveal as best he can by staging Jackie in a distant room and masking her shout as a maybe meaningless sentence while Jules occupies the frame. This is what I mean about getting cornered by a cliché, yet compensating with as clever a tactic as possible, even though this one doesn’t fool anybody.
“What Keeps You Alive” steps in these traps elsewhere, like when Jules mutters information out loud to herself while stitching her own wounds. The cynical viewer in me wonders why anyone would describe details when no one else is listening. The sympathetic critic in me counters, “what’s a better option for communicating exposition when only one person is onscreen?” Again, “What Keeps You Alive” often finds itself damned when it does as well as damned when it doesn’t.
The movie moves spryly enough that there at least aren’t long lulls for scattered weak spots to topple dominant strengths. The list of contrivances can be lengthened by citing each instance of someone leaving another person alone for no reason but to spark a subsequent scene, e.g. Jackie letting Jules and Sarah out of her sight at a key moment. Plenty of behavior only makes sense for a screenplay as opposed to an organic circumstance, yet that’s the price paid to sustain film fantasy suspense, which keeps momentum sizzling steadily.
Early on, “What Keeps You Alive” doesn’t give outward indications of exactly where it is headed. Jules senses intangible discomfort whenever she catches Jackie entranced in a vacant stare. An unexpected meeting with a childhood friend adds another clue that Jackie and Jules sit on dynamite, yet the movie still won’t show the fuse. From suggestion and misdirection, tension seethes in the pinpoint framing of Jackie in the foreground and Jules on a cliff’s edge. We see the possibilities, but the plot patiently teases every last second of anticipation before at last revealing its hand.
Once cards are on the table, Brittany Allen, taking a touch of Michelle Williams, and Hannah Emily Anderson, channeling an echo of Allison Williams, carry almost the entirety of the film on their capable backs. Every bit of acting rings true with nail-biting believability. Anderson slithers slyly as a femme fatale fabulist while Allen ably embodies demureness and determination across the arc of Jules’ evolvement. As personalities shift positions, individual portrayals remain true to their multilayered characterizations.
The ace up the film’s other sleeve is its intelligent employment of deceptively simple visuals. Several great Steadicam movements make meals out of tight location morsels to artfully amplify production design. One terrific shot features a fight that the audience never sees, with action captured instead by a camera following sounds on the ceiling while light fixtures sway from impact. This is certainly less complicated than choreographing an intricate sequence between two actresses who aren’t professional stunt performers. But the creativity behind this economical alternative adds a great deal of flair.
“What Keeps You Alive” does become over-enamored with its own sense of style though. Several scenes hit with too heavy a hand on the force-fed metaphor front. One slow-motion sequence set to a classical Beethoven piece is plenty. Three smacks of pure overindulgence, particularly when one takes place in luminol-speckled black light to boot.
Filmdom needs another woodland ‘predator versus prey’ premise with a “Most Dangerous Game” theme like the aforementioned “found footage” subset needs another paranormal building investigation. On the other hand, the “Black Rock” (review here) meets “Single White Female” vibe of “What Keeps You Alive” makes it one of the best in show for its category, as consistently appears to be the case when Colin Minihan’s team is involved.
Getting by on being well done from start to finish has brought Minihan’s films farther than peers have gone when burdened with the same baggage. Here’s hoping future efforts roam further off the leash. Eventually, adhering too close to proven templates might lock the director in a trap that sleek tweaks can’t wiggle out of.
Review Score: 70