I like horror. I like murder. I like lesbians. Therefore, 2018’s What Keeps You Alive seemed like the movie for me. As problematic as the killer lesbian trope may be, it’s one that I’ve always been drawn to. What can I say, I’m a simple woman with simple tastes!
Colin Minihan’s thriller focuses on Jules and Jackie – a lesbian couple who have travelled to a cabin in the woods to celebrate their first anniversary. Of course, this cabin in the woods is the pefect place to LURE SOMEONE OUT TO MURDER THEM, and that is exactly what Jackie intends to do. Jules must fight to survive and grapple with the fact that her wife is a total piece of shit. Luckily for Jules, Jackie does a pretty shit job of murdering her wife, which is how this movie can actually last for 98 minutes.
Admittedly, I have a hard time vibing with “oh no, my significant other is not who they seem” plotlines. It’s difficult to actually sell a story like that. In order for the audience to really believe that someone would completely miss the signs that their spouse was a whole ass serial killer, the writing has to be really solid. This did not have particularly solid writing. The whole thing felt like a very shabby set-up to make two women kill each other – like, as if Minihan had written the action sequences and then quickly threw together an opening as an afterthought. There was only about 20 minutes or so of build up before the sudden reveal that yes, Jackie was a psychopath.
Even the red flags in the beginning didn’t particularly captivate me. I couldn’t help but imagine what I would do in Jules’ situation here.
my wife: let me stare into your eyes and sing a song about demons and bloodletting. here’s a story about how I watched a bear die for twenty minutes
me: babe, can we just roast some s’mores or something
When Jackie executes her first murder attempt, I realized that this was not the movie I was expecting it to be. I had anticipated a slow-burn, where Jules slowly pieced together that their relationship was not quite right. Instead, the truth is revealed quickly and jumps straight to the cat-and-mouse game. This sucked most of the intrigue out for me. There is no real reflection on what it feels like to be deceived by a lover – Jules is upset, yeah, but I wanted a more visceral reaction. The movie mostly relies on flashbacks to establish that their relationship once looked loving, but it’s always the same damn sex scene. It felt forced and repetitive, as if they spliced it in to pad the runtime and try to force an emotional response.
The scene itself was pretty bizarre, too. It’s Jules pretending to be a crow and cawing for an extended period of time, then Jackie saying she’s a bald eagle. Then they smooch. There’s a metaphor there about how Jackie is the predatory bird but Jules is the more cunning bird, sure, whatever, but again, I couldn’t help thinking about how that scene would play out if I had been in that bed.
my wife: caw caw caw
me: babe, can we please just fuck
Overall, I guess the main issue for me is that I simply did not buy the chemistry between them. I also was extremely unimpressed by the “thrilling” chase scenes. Jackie was so frustratingly inept at killing her wife. The movie reveals that Jackie has pulled this whole, “seduce a woman and murder her” thing multiple times, but I have a hard time believing she successfully killed this many lesbians! Not when she couldn’t even land a shot on her wife when she was sitting still in the middle of a lake!
Horror movies do require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, I know – of course Jules wasn’t going to die so soon, yeah, yeah yeah. But there genuinely didn’t seem to be much tension in the various chase scenes. It reminded me of how I felt watching another middling 2018 horror film, Braid. Both movies seemed so focused on orchestrating aesthetically pleasing shots that it forgot to be, well, thrilling. What Keeps You Alive looked gorgeous with all its shots of greenery and the vast lake, but it felt very sterile – like a commercial for an allergy medicine, not a horror. Essentially, it lacked atmosphere.
As for the actual “representation” here, this appears to have been an example of colorblind casting. Initially, the story was supposed to be about a husband who kept chasing his wife around, but the actor dropped out. They then rewrote it to be what Minihan described as, “an iconic psychopath female character.” Admittedly, changing the story to be about lesbians definitely made me more drawn to the movie, as I likely wouldn’t have gone for another “guy murders his wife” movie. Unfortunately, making Jackie a woman really didn’t add much in the end. Her character is rather dry, despite a decent performance from Hannah Emily Anderson. It felt as if they decided being a woman was enough character development, and that they didn’t need to try and give her any sort of compelling motivation. [sidenote: calling your own character iconic? ok dude]
A final round of nitpicking: how long were Jackie and Jules together? Were they, like, U-Haul lesbians who got married pretty much immediately? Because I feel like Jackie was really playing the long game here if she was actually marrying all of her victims and spending that much time to build up a relationship. Especially considering her initial murder attempt was honestly pretty bland! Was it really worth it, girl????
I don’t know, man, this did not do it for me. I am appreciative of the soft butch rep, though.
Verdict: ★★☆☆☆ An overall sterile thriller that happens to have some lesbians in it. Utterly skippable, but if you’re into films that just look pretty, you might get a little more out of it. Also, real movie critics seemed to like it? So, I don’t know, your mileage may vary.