Trouble and Strife: ‘Held’ is a Marriage Counselling Session From Hell

In Held, Jill Awbrey (who also wrote the script) stars as Emma, a woman who has booked a stay at an AirBnB-style rental home with husband Henry (Bart Johnson). The hope for the couple is that this brief anniversary getaway will help rekindle their passions and right the ship of their relationship. Their ship is listing dangerously following the discovery of Emma’s past infidelity. After they awake from suspiciously deep sleeps, they discover that the “smart home” is a little too smart for its own good. They are locked in and forced to obey the sinister commands of a mysterious stranger, or else face debilitating electric shocks.

Their torture takes the form of a bizarre kind of marriage therapy, shot through with an undercurrent of repressive misogyny. The voice insists that they play the role of devoted husband and wife, or at least the kind of husband and wife to be found in a 1950s advert for vacuum cleaners. To this end, it has provided them with new wardrobes, and issues instructions including “the husband must open the door for his wife” and “the wife must thank the husband”. Any deviation from an archaic pattern of gender norms results in a swift and painful punishment.

It’s an interesting set-up, and in fact the film’s most interesting sequences come in these opening scenes. Emma’s predicament in particular is extremely well drawn. We open on a flashback scene of implied sexual violence. As we follow her in the present day, most of her interactions carry with them hints of invasive surveillance and potential threat. A cab driver asks personal questions and pressures her for a tip, and her husband is distant and dismissive. Her sense of paranoia and precarity are palpable even before the events of the film truly get underway.

When they do, and particularly when the bubbling tension spills over into physical violence, the film gets a bit more predictable. The central twist in particular is easy to see coming. When it does arrive, it does so in a satirical, tongue-in-cheek way that feels out of step with the tone of the rest of the film. Held has some insightful commentary on patriarchy and gender roles, but it misses the mark somewhat with its ham-fisted conclusion. As a result, it fails to connect with any broader societal critiques, and collapses into the safer territory of “bad people doing bad things because they’re bad.” That said, for a film that clearly owes a lot to Saw, it still feels like more of a pointed critique of the casual cruelty of everyday society than can be found in a lot of that franchise.

Held gestures towards social trends like online “Incel” culture and the abusive, powerful business men exposed by the #metoo generation. However, these spectres are mainly raised very late in the run time, and there is little time to give them the exploration they need. The film also hints at cultural preoccupations with digital surveillance and the uncanny nature of modern smart home technology. This is effective, and a theme we’d like to have seen developed further.

Performances throughout from Awbrey and Johnson are solid, with Awbrey in particular bringing an uneasy tightness to her role in the early scenes, which really helps to establish her character. Johnson’s performance is less subtle overall, but he hits the peaks of rage and the troughs of sullen, impotent fury with workmanlike efficiency.

Visually, the film is fairly nondescript. It’s a style that speaks to the coldness and lack of personality that we associate with modern smart homes, but it doesn’t give the audience much to look at. The editing is effective and very much helps build tension at the appropriate moments. These include some frenetic sequences of violence and some appropriately woozy-feeling scenes in which the characters fight the effects of sedatives.

All in all, Held represents a solid new arrangement of elements that will already be familiar to most genre viewers. Despite a very strong start, the flashes of intrigue that its original premise generates are eventually undercut by a series of recognisable tropes and clichés.


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