If Squid Game did marriage guidance counselling, it might look like this huis-clos, horror-flecked psychological mystery-thriller, which takes place almost entirely in the confines of a high-spec rental house hired by a couple on their anniversary hoping to pep up their flagging relationship. After a few nightcaps on their first evening together, writer Emma (Jill Awbrey, who also scripted) and husband Henry (Bart Johnson) fall unconscious. They wake up locked in and fitted with behind-the-ear implants that deliver agonising pain if they don’t comply with the distorted voice that – initially via a rotary phone, then through speakers around the house – bids them: “You must obey!”
Weirdly, what the voice wants is to educate them in the ways of old-fashioned, courteous coupledom. “A man should open the door for his wife,” it says, before having them get into their glad rags and forcing Emma to prepare dinner. As this matrimonial-minded malefactor puts them through their paces, revealing personal secrets on the way, it’s unclear if he truly is a stickler for sincerity and consideration, or with this coerced parody of marriage is dragging them bleeding and screaming towards the realisation that the entire institution is a sham.
The eventual reveal feeds into the post-#MeToo landscape of sexual politics a little too brazenly; the underlying tenets about male mindsets are more suited to the 1950s than the 2020s. Some of the cat-and-mouse plot mechanics as Emma and Henry try to escape, are uninspired, and Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing’s direction is as anonymous as the house’s lacquered surfaces. But the deft set of deceptions in Held’s final stretch are astutely handled, with Awbrey’s circumspect Emma riding out this gender slugging match to, if not a totally convincing feminist statement, then at least a confident calling card of a lead role.