A couple’s ailing marriage is put to the test when they are held hostage by an unseen voice that commands their every move.
There may not be a lot of meat on Held’s stripped-to-the-bone narrative, but it’s a stylish mash-up of the home invasion genre with The Stepford Wives (1972) that also bears an interesting if passing resemblance to the recent Windfall (2022). Has coronavirus perhaps refocused attention on the plight of unhappy couples forced to isolate together?
Beginning some years ago with an implicit rape which isn’t directly relevant to the story that unfolds, but establishes our identification with the female protagonist and marks out men as potential abusers, Held soon moves forwards to the present day. Emma (Jill Awbrey) is writing poetry in her notebook as a cab takes her to a remote house in (apparently) California that she’s rented for an anniversary getaway with her husband; she’s made uneasy by the personal questions of the driver (Rez Kempton), although it’s difficult to know whether there is truly a threatening undertone or whether it’s all in her perception.
The house, when she gets there, is almost a parody of Airbnb desirability, down to the obsessively organised, Instagrammable contents of the refrigerator, the thick instruction book (of course!), the state-of-the-art home automation system, and the locked door, ominous for just a moment. Before long, husband Henry (Bart Johnson) turns up too, and though things don’t seem entirely comfortable between the pair, they’re civil enough.
It’s only the next morning—after Emma has dreamed (but is it a dream?) of an intruder, the sequence’s violence contrasting effectively with the expensive calm of the house so far—that things get strange. She wakes in an unexpected nightdress; coffee’s been made for her, but seemingly not by Henry; their phones are gone; unfamiliar, rather old-fashioned clothes are hanging in the closet.
When Emma picks up the landline to call the police, a voice blasts “obey us!”, going on to say that “there are rules”—and it becomes clear the voice isn’t just talking about the house, but about relationships generally. Micro-managing Emma and Henry’s behaviour, it seems to be trying to force them into a coupledom from the 1950s: the man must open doors for his wife and bring her gifts, the woman must make him dinner and gaze adoringly, even if the adoration is prompted more by a fear of the unseen voice administering punishment than by an actual embrace of traditional values.
“Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. The truth may be difficult to hear but the truth will purify your marriage,” says the voice, compelling Henry and Emma to face up to some painful secrets too. But of course, the truth when it is finally revealed may not be exactly the truth we imagine it’s alluding to at this point.
A film like this tries to hold the audience through two central questions: who’s behind it all, and will Emma and her husband escape? The answer to the second can be at least partially be assumed by anyone who’s seen similar films before, and the answer to the first isn’t impossible to guess. Still, it’s not so obvious that it seems inevitable either, and the narrative benefits from a couple of less foreseeable twists earlier on, both involving third parties turning up at the house.
There isn’t much more to Held than this, not a lot of development between premise and resolution. As a result the first hour can feel a little repetitive, and the final half-hour a bit routine (alleviated by some visual humour in the retro design of the bad guys’ lair). But the film goes a long way toward making up for its slightness with exceptionally strong presentation and engaging performances.
Kyle Gentz’s cinematography is especially notable; its bold compositions aided by the cool, hi-tech interior design of the house, with overhead shots heightening the feeling that Emma’s trapped both inside the building itself and in someone else’s scheme. Precise editing by Andy Matthews and Aaron Tharp serves the photography well, a good score by Richard Breakspear is amusingly OTT at the moment of the big revelation, and sound mixing also contributes much to the ambience.
The two leads have the only roles of any size (though Kempton’s cab driver is believable), and while both successfully give the impression of being fully rounded people with much going on in their lives and their heads that isn’t spoken, it’s Awbrey (who also wrote the film) who stands out: seemingly braver and stronger than her husband in a performance rather reminiscent of Frances McDormand that promises well for future appearances.
Held is her feature debut not only as an actor but also as a writer, and if it doesn’t put much flesh on the bare bones of its story, the script is well-constructed and the production accomplished enough to give it a certain class that many low-budget thrillers of its kind lack.
USA | 2020 | 94 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
directors: Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing.
writer: Jill Awbrey.
starring: Jill Awbrey, Bart Johnson, Travis Cluff & Rez Kempton.