Hannah Emily Anderson, Brittany Allen

How well do you really know your significant other?

That’s the question at the heart of Colin Minihan’s new feature, What Keeps You Alive, which was just released by IFC Midnight. The Canadian horror film has been making waves on the festival circuit for its fascinating and brutal depiction of a duplicitous relationship between married couple Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson). Mild spoilers to follow.

When the film opens the happily married couple is en route to Jackie’s isolated family cabin to celebrate their first anniversary. The banter between partners is chipper and familiar; they’re in for a charming weekend of childhood tales and romance. It’s not long, however, before something feels off. Jackie’s capacity with a gun during a playful game of target practice is deadly accurate and all of her stories involve death, including one involving a bear she shot and watched die as a little girl, and another featuring a drowning accident in the nearby lake. The fact that Jackie is addressed by a different name by the couple who own a nearby property is another red flag that doesn’t sit well with Jules.

In Minihan’s script the question is not if violence will erupt; the question is when. The carefully placed red herrings in the first act tease that something is amiss, despite the fact that Jules and Jackie have an affectionate, playful relationship. That unknown element is never more evident than when Jackie tells Jules about her childhood encounter with the bear: Minihan alternates between a medium shot to emphasize the distance between the two women and close ups of Jules’ face as she stares in wonder while her wife dispassionately describes the death of an animal whose head hangs on the wall. It’s not long before Jules learns first hand that Jackie’s fascination with death extends into sociopath territory.

These ominous signals bloom into full-on murderous intent during a casual hike. When the two women pause to take in the spectacular woodland view at the top of a cliff, Jackie abruptly pushes her wife over the edge. It is only when Jules survives the near fatal fall that What Keeps You Alive reveals itself to be a grim and tense thriller wherein Jules must prevent her wife from murdering her.

Brittany Allen

What Keeps You Alive immediately picks up steam following Jackie’s unsuccessful murder attempt. Minihan takes full advantage of his remote location as the pair initiate a game of cat and mouse in the surrounding woods which – thrillingly and comedically – culminates in a chase across the lake via rowboat. Of course there are additional complications that serve to extend the conflict and raise the stakes between the lovers even further, but to say more would take away the fun.

The film ultimately lives and dies on the relationship between its central pair. As the villain, Anderson is convincingly cold and heartless, particularly when Jackie drops the pretense to reveal her true visage. Unlike so many other thrillers, the violence that Jackie inflicts is distinctly human, which helps to keep the film grounded. When someone is murdered, it’s not a beautiful tableau and it’s not an easy feat; it’s messy and nasty and hard. Anderson is eminently believable as the sociopath who is unafraid (and sometimes even eager) to get her hands dirty.

The true discovery of the film, however, is Allen. As Jules, Allen has the broadest character arc to play with and she absolutely sells her character’s evolution from love struck wife to confused victim and, eventually, vengeful survivor. It’s an emotional transformation, particularly as Jules struggles to reconcile her memories (filmed as hazy, romantic black and white interludes) with the grim reality she now faces in the present.

Thankfully Allen and Minihan do not succumb to temptation and turn Jules into some kind of backwoods survivalist. As satisfying as it would be for Jules to wreak revenge on her homicidal spouse, What Keeps You Alive refuses the fantasy and only allows Jules the humble abilities she has at the start of the film to fight back with. The fact that we so desperately yearn for Jules to survive her experience is a testament to how much sympathy Allen imbues in the character.

The film’s other significant element of note is the casual, matter of fact presentation of its lesbian couple. There’s no fuss about the fact that the women are married or gay and Minihan’s script side-steps the complicated cinematic history of murderous lesbians by disavowing sexuality as Jackie’s murderous motivation. She kills because she is sociopath, not because she is a lesbian. The distinction is important and laudable.

In this sense, What Keeps You Alive is quietly revolutionary. More importantly, it’s just a damn good horror film. This one is strongly recommended.

IFC Midnight’s What Keeps You Alive is now in select theatres.