A year after putting his recurrent star Brittany Allen through one kind of mill — chased across the desert by a tireless zombie — writer-director Colin Minihan provides her with another life-imperiling ordeal via “What Keeps You Alive.” This thriller about a lesbian couple whose weekend takes a drastic turn is less one-note as a narrative conceit than “It Stains the Sand Red,” though it too ultimately stretches inspiration a tad thin. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining and well-crafted effort from a resourceful indie team who’ve scored enough respectable base hits to date (also including “Grave Encounters” and “Extraterrestrial”) that one might reasonably expect them to deliver a home-run any time now.
Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Allen) are celebrating their one-year anniversary with a weekend at a woodsy Canadian cabin that’s been in the former’s family for generations. A light shining in this now-seldom-occupied house attracts the attention of Jackie’s childhood friend Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), who lives with her husband (Joey Klein as Daniel) in a home directly across the lake. It’s a brief, awkward reunion for the two women — which Jackie later explains as resulting from the mysterious drowning death of a third friend years ago, an event she was questioned by police over before being absolved of wrongdoing.
That news is a bit ominous. However, our immediate attention is on Jules’ reaction to discovering her wife had female acquaintances before her — she seems jealous and sulky beyond all reason. Given that this is a thriller, we suspect we know where things are headed.
Yet they are headed somewhere else entirely, it turns out. A jolting turn of events at the 20-minute mark re-configures our notion of who’s the likely victim and victimizer in this relationship to a drastic degree. When this incident proves less-than-fatal, “What Keeps You Alive” becomes a game of survival between one badly hurt woman and a second who’s not only out to kill her, but has apparently disposed of prior girlfriends in the same ruthless way. Needless to say, when outsiders (Sarah and Daniel again) stumble into the middle of this protracted, brutal conflict, it is to their own great misfortune.
As usual with this kind of story, we have to accept that an intelligent protagonist would somehow overlook all signs of a partner’s violent sociopathy until it’s too late; not to mention that said sociopath might manage to leave a trail of dead spouses without ever getting caught. But the performers here are strong enough to suspend that disbelief.
It’s only in its last third or so that “What Keeps You Alive” begins to outrun credibility, despite some decent twists. There’s not quite enough psychological nuance to Minihan’s screenplay to prevent the leads from hitting the same notes (however dramatically extreme) too many times, or to make sense of character decisions clearly intended to prolong their agonies. A movie that might have been short, sharp, and shocking at 80 minutes grows more uneven stretched to 20 more — at which road’s end it feels like too many potential endings were shoehorned in sequentially rather than discard any usable material. But sometimes less is more, and more is simply too much.
Nevertheless, Anderson is very good in a pocket-size variation on Rosamund Pike’s “Gone Girl” type, while Allen (completely unrecognizable from her prior roles for this director) really throws herself into a punishingly physical performance. The Ontario forest locations are rendered both very attractive and perilous by first-time feature DP David Schuurman’s widescreen lensing. All other tech/design contributions are nicely handled to create a confident, resourceful indie suspense package that lands just a couple script drafts short of being a knockout.