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Review: ‘Held’ lacks the cleverness and panache to land stinging social satire

A woman in a floral dress looks at someone holding a carving knife
Jill Awbrey in the movie “Held.”
(Magnet Releasing)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

There’s something particularly frustrating about a horror movie that has a great premise, poorly executed. The home invasion thriller “Held” starts out with a genuinely good idea: mixing the “obey an unseen master” gimmick of “Saw” with the “how to be a perfect spouse” social satire of “The Stepford Wives.” But it lacks the cleverness or the panache to give its schtick the proper zing.

Jill Awbrey wrote the “Held” script and also stars as Emma, a woman looking forward to a relaxing retreat at a remote rental home with her husband Henry (Bart Johnson). Where they’re staying is elegant and modern, with high-tech appliances and security systems . It also — unbeknownst to Emma — comes with its own masked creep, who pops out at night to drug and imprison the guests.

When the couple wakes up after their first woozy evening, their clothes have been changed to something more conservative and they’ve been locked in. Soon, the masked man barks orders, demanding they confront their failures as husband and wife — and that they playact as an old-fashioned family with the woman subservient to the man.

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Awbrey and the movie’s co-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing take time to establish a pattern of sexist harassment toward Emma: from a ride-share driver who pressures her for a tip to the way Henry seems to take her for granted. Emma’s bizarre predicament is really an amplification of the heavy expectations that weigh on her every day.

While the heroine’s circumstances are reasonably well-drawn, the rest of “Held” is under-imagined — and pretty predictable. The “ideal couple” exercises Emma and Henry get pushed into aren’t exaggerated enough to be as nightmarishly unsettling as they should be and the plot’s big twist is easy to see coming. Even when the film takes a violent turn, those scenes aren’t especially exciting or disturbing.

This movie’s most interesting elements are in the setup. Once the characters are in the house and the trap gets sprung, the story stalls. Given what it’s about, “Held” could’ve cut much deeper. Instead, it barely breaks the surface.

'Held'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Starts April 9, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; and in limited release where theaters are open; also available on digital and VOD;

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