‘What Keeps You Alive’ Picks Movie Psychopathy Over Genuine Psychological Horror

What Keeps You Alive sacrifices its most interesting possibilities in favor of the squat simplicity of the cinematic psychopath, erasing psychological complexity in otherwise compelling characters: a couple celebrating their one-year anniversary at a family cabin in the woods.

“There's a demon inside, better run for your life,” Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) sings to Jules (Brittany Allen), just one of several signs she's been dwelling on violence, including reminiscing about a black bear she once hunted and waving around a gleaming hunting knife. But both Jackie and Jules have an outdoorsy streak, complete with rifle training, so there's nothing but horror convention to suggest anything is too far off in their marriage.

That is, until Jackie shoves Jules off a cliff. Without warning, Jackie has revealed herself to be a psychopath, determined to kill Jules, nominally for insurance money, but actually for the seeming thrill of it.

As in this year's Revenge, Jules survives Jackie's initial assault and comes after her, but What Keeps You Alive lacks the adrenal colors and bloody-mindedness of Revenge director Coralie Fargeat. Nor does it have that movie's clear-cut battle lines, with a single woman against the arrayed violence of the patriarchy. Instead, Jules and Jackie start on even footing. This, combined with the deep woods palette, puts What Keeps You Alive in murkier territory. Instead of combating a loosely-veiled social analogy, Jules is pitted against the undiscovered twilight realm hidden inside the woman she loved.

This could be interesting psychological territory, but What Keeps You Alive never finds a motivation for Jackie beyond a hidden nature—the serial killer within. Anderson rarely has the opportunity to bring much more to Jackie than a flat affect and the occasional glower, in part because Jackie's character is never forced to resolve the tension between Jackie the killer and Jackie the loving wife. She claims to have never loved Jules, who she's now busy hunting, but is she telling the truth? What motivated this woman to fake it, perfectly, for a whole year?

The inverse is left similarly unexplored, as Jules is immediately thrown into a life-or-death struggle with Jackie. Any possibility of ambiguity is erased early, when Jules sees Jackie's facade of concern drop. Everything subsequent, including Jackie capturing Jules and forcing her through a dinner party, never rises above hostage thriller, the complexities of a loving relationship torn apart and abandoned for forest chases.

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Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen), hunter and hunted, in "What Keeps You Alive." IFC Midnight

What Keeps You Alive's unwillingness to explore its own premise more rigorously takes on almost comic dimensions, particularly when Jules asks for an explanation and Jackie responds as if averting a public tiff at a restaurant. “We're not doing this right now,” she says.

“You're just desperate, aren't you? To feel something, anything,” Jules says, articulating a sentiment said of too many generic movie sociopaths.

It still might have worked if What Keeps You Alive compensated with either a thrilling cat-and-mouse duel between a killer and her intended victim, or if Jackie's stalking game was ever frightening. Instead, the dead center of the movie is a protracted rowboat chase no amount of thumping music can rescue. What Keeps You Alive barely picks up from there. Tension never seems to build between Jackie and Jules, only dissipate again and again, as the characters go through another cycle of chase-capture-escape.

Occasionally visually gratifying, particularly in an ultraviolet montage set to piano—illuminating the stubborn, staining endurance of blood—writer-director Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters, Extraterrestrial) shoots What Keeps You Alive like a psychological thriller. But the script never stands up to the aesthetic. Scenes like the off-screen final confrontation, seen in the rattling ceiling lamps and heard through floorboards, could have been compelling if we believed this was a battle of minds. Instead, it feels like What Keeps You Alive denying us not just the psychological horror, but the visceral thrills too.