Held manages to best Cluff and Lofing’s The Gallows, but it still an abysmal, problematic, and tension-free failure.
The new marriage-in-peril thriller Held comes courtesy of directing duo Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, the two dudes responsible for 2015’s found-footage horror flick The Gallows, one of the worst films to come about in…well, ever. It’s both reassuring and not surprising — given that low, low bar — to report that Held is indeed a better film, although the duo dragging me out of my house and slowly backing over me with a semi would have been a step forward from an enjoyment perspective. Unfortunately, Held still sucks, a domestic thriller with a satirical edge that isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is. It doesn’t help that a variation on this exact same scenario came out literally two weeks ago with BenDavid Grabinski’s far superior Happily. Here, Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson star as Emma and Henry Barrett, a married couple spending a weekend at a secluded Smart House in California’s wine country. Tensions between the two run high from the start, and only get worse once the pair become trapped in their dream Airbnb, a digitally-distorted voice booming over the house’s speakers instructing them simply to “Obey.” Drugged and implanted with a device behind the right ear that emits a paralyzing screeching noise if they attempt to escape — um, okay? — the pair must adhere to the whims of their unseen controller, who proceeds to play out what amounts to a variation of an intensive session of couple’s therapy.
For most of its running time, Held is essentially a two-hander, and frankly, the lead actors are simply not up to the challenge. Awbrey, who also wrote the screenplay, is a relative newcomer who tries mightily, but ultimately delivers a wildly uneven performance. Johnson, meanwhile, is stiff and unconvincing, although one has to wonder what the filmmakers expected when they hired the guy best known as Zac Efron’s basketball coach/dad from the High School Musical flicks. Held takes a turn at the hour-mark, delivering a twist that even the least astute viewers will see coming from a mile away, and this also marks the point when the film suddenly decides to go the satirical route, taking on the subject of patriarchal oppression in modern-day marriage. The idea itself isn’t terrible, but Cluff, Lofing, and Awbrey have no idea how to execute it in any sort of way that is enlightening or satisfying. Held ultimately wants to be a tale of female empowerment, but mistakenly believes that the best way to give its heroine agency is to tack on a grossly under-developed subplot involving sexual assault that feels like a shortcut — a cheap jab at topical provocation. If this entire element were removed from the final product, its absence would have no impact on the proceedings, demonstrating that its inclusion exists almost entirely for shock value, which, gross. The movie is also so concerned with throwing us straight into the action that it fails to establish this couple and their relationship in any sort of meaningful way, making it nearly impossible to actually care what happens to them, especially as the script springs one troubling character revelation after another. At no point did anyone involved with this film ever stop and think about the impact of the script’s various twists and the detrimental effects it would have on the viewer and their perception of these ciphers. Cluff and Lofing bring nothing in the way of style to these proceedings save for a brief segment where the film switches aspect ratios, because, hey, that’s a cool move, right? Held boasts not a single moment of tension, which isn’t surprising, but is still disappointing considering the film’s billing as a thriller. Like any number of horror flick fiends, if somebody could please stop these filmmakers before they strike again, it would be greatly appreciated.