A woman enters a fancy hotel room. She begins asking the man inside questions off of a form and writes down his answers. The questions get progressively more personal, sexual even. He stops her. This isn’t what they agreed on. She is a dominatrix and he has hired her to perform off of a script he has written. She refuses and takes command of their session. Or does she? Is this all part of an elaborate game? Who is really playing and what is at stake?
Those mysteries are at the heart of Sanctuary, a darkly comedic story about power and desire. What is interesting in this particular conflict is that one side seems to want power and the other doesn’t. Rebecca dominates men for money. Hal pays her to verbally abuse and humiliate him. In their private lives, he is the one with wealth and power. Is this exchange part of the thrill? Are they both getting pleasure out of this arrangement? The fantasy they act out in his room may be based on hidden urges, or who they really are, deep inside. Or maybe Rebecca is just playing a role. When their game collides with their “real lives,” they have a lot of questions they have to answer, to themselves as well as to each other.
Hal is rich. His father recently passed away and Hal is about to be named CEO of his company. He knows who he needs to be to do that job. He decides he needs to stop seeing Rebecca in order to be that person. Christopher Abbott plays him as a man who hides behind his status. He seems calmest in the moments where he is doing as he is told. Is that a part he plays to satisfy a fetish? Or is it his true self? While Abbott is certainly good, Hal is absolutely the lesser of the two characters.
The stronger character is Rebecca, played by Margaret Qualley in a performance that is thoughtful, surprising and fun to watch. She brings so much energy. Hal behaves like he is following a script. Rebecca seems eternally present, constantly plotting a way to stay ahead. Qualley shows this with her eyes and the way she smiles. When Hal fires her, a switch flips in her head. Is she angry that she lost control? Or is this another level of the role she inhabits for him? Rebecca is undoubtedly up to something, but what and why are the movie’s biggest secrets.
This is a two actor, one location movie. It is kind of stagey; however, director Zachary Wigon gets around this by making the hotel room largely unimportant. The physicality of the actors (the way they move and stand, especially in relation to the other) makes a far bigger impact. The fact that they remain in the same place doesn’t matter because the space itself is secondary to what is going on in the heads of Hal and Rebecca. That is a credit to the performances and the writing.
Sanctuary (93 minutes, plus the end credits), alas, is probably a little too clever for its own good by the end. Despite being fairly consistently compelling, there are some small stretches that feel twisty for the sake of it, instead of for any legitimate narrative reason. The screenplay by Micah Bloomberg leans slightly too much on “what is real,” making Hal and Rebecca sometimes come off as constructs more than people actually going through this. It works best when the trickery takes a rest, allowing Abbott and Qualley to go toe-to-toe.
Even when it gets frustrating, Sanctuary is intriguing. It sets up a battle of wits where the combatants are also sort of sparring with themselves. “Things may not be what they seem” can get exhausting after a while, yet Abbott and Qualley kept me engaged. This is definitely a puzzle worth exploring.
3¾ out of 5
Christopher Abbott as Hal
Margaret Qualley as Rebecca
Directed by Zachary Wigon
Written by Micah Bloomberg