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Sanctuary

A skillful BDSM practitioner knows how to create the illusion of danger inside a tightly controlled experience. A similar technique fuels “Sanctuary,” a two-hander set inside a hotel room on a single night. At its best moments, these restrictions ironically give the film and its stars room to explore—just as the pre-arranged scenarios between the characters give them the structure they need to let their emotions flow.

Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott star as Rebecca and Hal, a professional dominatrix and her long-term client. As the story begins, the two are meeting up for one of their regular sessions: Rebecca walks through the door of Hal’s hotel suite in a blonde wig and a business suit, and begins a business negotiation that soon devolves into pointed questions about Hal’s sexual history. Before we know it, Hal is naked on the floor of his hotel bathroom, scrubbing behind the toilet with a toothbrush as Rebecca verbally humiliates him. 

It seems like a spontaneous pivot, fueled by a genuine power struggle. Then director Zachary Wigon cuts to a script on the suite’s dining room table, and we learn that “going off script” was in fact written into Hal’s script for the scene. This shot is the key to unlocking the entire film: If what we just saw was fabricated, then how much of what follows is actually “real?”

The casting in “Sanctuary” is spot on. Abbott, who, funnily enough, starred in another sadomasochistic comedy set in a hotel room in 2018 named "Piercing," gives a pathetic puppy-dog face like no other actor working today. And Qualley, focusing the tumultuous energy of her character in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” gives off a cold, but wounded vibe that makes you believe that she might actually do all the unhinged things she says she’ll do if Hal breaks off their “arrangement” as promised. 

Hal says he has to stop seeing Rebecca because he’s about to ascend to the role of CEO at his family’s gigantic hotel company (that’s right, he’s a nepo baby) and he can’t risk having his deviant extracurriculars exposed once he’s in the big chair once occupied by his late, Trump-like father. The thing is, submissive Hal is wholly unsuited for the cutthroat world of business. Any backbone he does have is the result of his relationship with Rebecca, which includes genuine care and affection as well as perverted, no-contact sex acts. Rebecca knows this and decides to get what’s hers. 

The characters’ true motivations aren’t revealed until the final moments of “Sanctuary,” and the film doesn’t totally click into place until that happens. At its heart, this is an old-fashioned screwball rom-com built on banter, not an edgy BDSM-themed thriller. The controlled chaos that leads up to this revelation sometimes feels like it’s going in circles, and the delayed gratification of finding out what’s really going on here can be frustrating. “Sanctuary” is a tease. 

This is a film fueled by writing and performance. Writer Micah Bloomberg’s script ingeniously incorporates the movie’s themes into its structure, and Qualley and Abbott—but especially Qualley—playfully keep the audience guessing throughout. (Rebecca’s apparent talent as an actress is another complicating factor in the film’s sense of reality or the lack thereof.) Even so, there are times when everyone seems to be filling time with misdirection until the trick can be revealed. 

Wigon's use of Steadicam, particularly a series of 360-degree spins turning Hal’s suite upside down and upright again, feels especially like thumb-twiddling. It makes sense to want to add visual interest to a film that takes place in a single location. But when you have a good script and good actors—which Wigon does—such flourishes are unnecessary. (This is a tip “Sanctuary” could take from the ‘30s and ‘40s screwball comedies it’s emulating.) Ariel Marx’s score fits in more harmoniously, as its jazzy, improvisational beats further destabilize an already volatile situation.

Jazz, improv, a dominatrix “losing her temper” at an unruly client—all of them give the impression that the performer is simply doing what comes naturally, when in fact there’s loads of training and immense control behind their actions. What does Rebecca really think of Hal, and what does Hal really think of Rebecca? Does their “breakup” reflect each of their deepest fears because they know each other so well, or has it been calculated to play out that way as a form of emotional catharsis? The pleasure and the discomfort—both come from not knowing.

In theaters today, May 19th.

Katie Rife

Katie Rife is a freelance writer and critic based in Chicago with a speciality in genre cinema. She worked as the News Editor of The A.V. Club from 2014-2019, and as Senior Editor of that site from 2019-2022. She currently writes about film for outlets like Vulture, Rolling Stone, Indiewire, Polygon, and RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Sanctuary movie poster

Sanctuary (2023)

Rated R for sexual content and language.

96 minutes

Cast

Christopher Abbott as Hal Porterfield

Margaret Qualley as Rebecca Marin

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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