There’s an ocean’s worth of distance between what makes an “independent film” versus what makes an “indie film,” and it’s not just one is a shortened term for the other. Independent films are truly that — films made away from the aegis of Hollywood, made by scrappy upstarts out in the hinterlands, determined to join the cinematic fray on their owns terms and credit card debts. The other is a vibe, a certain boutique coolness that has come to define a particular style of movie, across genres, since the boom of the ‘90s. Independent films can be just as commercial as any average big-budget offering, only they may lack the resources and star power to compete on the same big scale. Indie films are decidedly adventurous and sometimes anti-commercial, but are necessarily consigned to only being minor releases.
On that note, there’s an increased “indie-ization” of horror in the past few years, the kind of restyling of the genre that gets think pieces about “elevated this and that” shoved into clickbaiting search engine results. Whereas independent horror films were still popcorn fare, now they are embracing the slow-boiling emotive style of many an indie drama. They are more concerned with feelings than fright. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the modern horror landscape is dotted with modern classics like IT FOLLOWS, HEREDITARY and THE BABADOOK marrying more deeply felt stories with subverted genre conventions. This is a good thing. Unless the movie in question botches it.
WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE is a relationship drama in search of a horror fanbase. It’s about a lesbian couple who travel to the proverbial cabin in the woods to work on their relationship, only for it all to fall to pot once deeper, darker secrets are uncovered. It’s almost could be a Sapphic WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, all bitter recriminations and hurled insults. Except, here, blood gets splattered and throats get slit along the way. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. It could have been a great thing. But man, oh man, does WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE drag. And that’s the double-edged sword of indie-style horror dramas; when they work, they can add wonderful resonance to simple genre pleasures, but when they don’t, you’re stuck with a limp film that doesn’t even offer the empty promise of cheap thrills.
It’s hard to care about the seemingly loving relationship between the Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) and the fact that Jackie is carrying a secret identity that Jules never knew about. They have barely made themselves at home in their vacation cabin when they are visited by their neighbor, an old of Jackie’s that calls her by the name “Megan” instead. Jackie has kept the truth of her past hidden from her loving wife, causing rifts of anger and mistrust to bubble up from the surface and begin to rip the two apart. The two go on a hike in an attempt to repair their now ruptured bond when…
…when the film shifts and springs a twist that moves it into horror/thriller territory.
The central problem, though, is that the character-building first act doesn’t feel all that different from many “troubled marriage” indie dramas and everything that happens after the spring is sprung comes as predictable, with characters making increasingly stupid decisions in order to forcibly push the plot into shape. There’s nothing all that thrilling about this thriller, which tries to use genre elements as a metaphor for marriage issues, but whiffs the metaphor and utilizes only the most obvious genre plot points in telling it.
There are things about WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE that prevent it from being a complete slog though. Director Colin Minihan at least brings a sense of style to the film, with some pretty nice shots, a beautiful woodland location and some clever stylistic elements that all least make the film look good. There’s also a streak of dark humor laced through the film, and a pair of rather terrific lead performances from Anderson and Allen. Anderson, in particular, gives a show-stopping performance, seizing the reins of her role and really biting in and relishing her chance to shine. Allen’s role is a little harder to pull off; the actress does it well, but she’s been saddled with a character that feels contrived and designed to simply propel the plot than exist as being.
As WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE rounds the bend, however, it begins to feel like RETURN OF THE KING, ending about eight times and dragging its climax to an interminable length. And that’s the crux of the film’s problems. Despite some great acting and solid filmmaking elements, the story is just so thin, so lackluster, so middling and predictable that it drags the film down, and any attempt to give it any deeper meaning fails to stick, coming off as dull and disingenuous. WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE isn’t terrible, per se, but it never manages to claw its way out of the level of “filler.”