What's worse: a fully bad movie, or one that comes so close to being a total winner but ultimately misses the mark? It's something I wondered a few times during the back half of What Keeps You Alive, which started off well and kept surprising me (as usual, I didn't know much about the film before I sat down), but in writer/director Colin Minihan's attempts to essentially speed up a slow burn kind of story, he ended up having to drag things out to near-interminable levels in the third act, and thus squandered a lot of the good will he had built up in the first hour. At least if it was just total junk right from the start I could resign myself to that and laugh at its expense (or just doze off), but instead I found myself wishing this was a test screening and I could implore anyone who would listen to fix things.
Our protagonists are Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) who are celebrating their one year anniversary by heading to Jackie's long vacant cabin in the woods. They're not there for very long when Jackie's childhood friend Sarah (Martha MacIsaac) shows up, and it's a bit awkward, especially since Sarah refers to Jackie as "Meghan". Jules is pretty upset about it, wondering what else she doesn't know about the love of her life, but after Jackie explains things they more or less make up. However, a bit later Jules pays Sarah a visit and finds out the pair had a third friend, Jenny, who died under mysterious circumstances when they were children. Sarah is incredulous that Jackie never brought her up before, troubling Jules even more. When she presses Jackie about it, she gets an explanation, and everything seems OK again - but then things get worse. Jackie is not just someone who lied about her name - she's basically a serial killer.
Without spoiling the particulars (the violence kicks in so suddenly I was legit stunned when it happened), the film then becomes a survival thriller, with the women engaged in a cat and mouse game that lasts a couple days. Minihan is good at getting to story beats much quicker than you'd expect, giving the film a refreshing "OK I honestly don't know where this will go now" feel for a while. Unfortunately, he seemingly didn't know either, and the last half hour is basically the same two scenes repeated over and over. Both characters do some rather stupid things (even by horror/thriller standards) and every time you think the movie is going to end it goes into overtime thanks to one of those dumb decisions, replacing my enjoyment with increasing levels of frustration. At 80 minutes this would be a low-key knockout, but at 95 or whatever it topped out as... well, let's be grateful it got picked up from IFC Midnight, as the film will definitely come to Blu-ray and you'll be free to move things along as you see fit.
Unfortunately you won't be able to do much about the bafflingly bad soundtrack choices. The score (by Allen!) is fine, and Jackie sings a very creepy song about demons that is used to great effect (they use it for the bulk of the trailer, in fact), but otherwise it was like the film's music producer was trying to undermine his own film. Again, if this was a test screening I would be able to help; I would use my comment card to write (in big block letters) a plea for them to cut a needless montage of one of our leads cleaning up the mess they made, intercut with someone playing "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano. By my count, this particular piece of music has been used in no less than eight hundred million genre films over the past couple decades, and there is really no reason to ever use it again (ditto the other Beethoven piece that pops up near the end, though I don't know that one by name - only that I've heard it too damn much).
And then there's the Silverchair incident. Early in the film, the two are listening to one of Silverchair's rock songs in their car and one jokes about how it's "their song", and it's fine - they're laughing about it and, you know, whatever. But it's not exactly a memorable song (it was their nearly 20 year old minor hit "Anthem for the Year 2000" for the record), and we only hear a snippet of it, so later in the film when Jules plays it again as a badass moment of revenge, it doesn't quite land - the audience might not even realize it's the same song unless they actually remembered it independent of the film, which is unlikely. Plus it's Silverchair - I mean, can't you do better than this? No offense to the guys in the band, but I couldn't help but think if it was something ridiculous (Barenaked Ladies, maybe? It's a Canadian film after all) it might have actually worked better, both for the audience to easily make the connection and just as an ironic contrast to what was going on in the movie. Instead it's just a fairly generic rock song playing over a fight scene, which we've seen a zillion times.
Luckily, the film has lots of things we haven't seen so much to keep it from falling apart. There is a lovely, heartbreaking scene where Sarah and her husband come over for dinner, with Jackie forcing Jules into pretending everything is normal, and Sarah asks how they met and when they knew they were in love. Allen is terrific in the scene, and it's devastating to hear Jules tell the story of how she fell in love with this woman who is now trying to murder her, all that trust and love completely shattered - with Jackie practically rolling her eyes in return, twisting the knife. Then there's a big fight scene on the second floor that plays out from a camera on the first floor, tilted up to show the ceiling being disrupted (dust coming between the rafters, a hanging light swinging around) as the two combatants throw and slam each other around offscreen. I also liked how Sarah's husband seemed to be from another planet during his few scenes, though I have no idea why they made that choice. It was just amusing.
Really, with some editing and some alternate soundtrack selections, this would be a very effective thriller. All of the performances are great (those who were disappointed Anderson's character in Jigsaw never turned into the psycho they tried making us think she was should be satisfied here) and again, there were times I was honestly unsure where the film was going, always a plus for this sort of thing. But when all of the bad decisions occur in the final reel or so, you walk out feeling deflated instead of pumped and wanting to champion the movie. Maybe someday we will learn they were contractually obligated to deliver a 95 minute movie, hence the dragged out climax (and pointless nightmare scene - come on, people) and we can forgive them a little, but until then I'm always gonna think of it as "That movie that started off awesome but then shot itself in the foot and made me remember Silverchair."