In a luxury hotel suite, Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott) answers the door to Rebecca Marin (Margaret Qualley), an attorney vetting him on behalf of the Board of Directors at his recently deceased father’s company, Porterfield Hotels and Resorts, where he’ll be taking over as CEO. In her green velvet suit and short blonde hair—an obvious wig—Rebecca begins to ask Hal a series of increasingly bizarre personal questions, starting with his height and weight; his answers of 6’3 and 200 lbs clear lies. Her questions get juicy: when did he lose his virginity? But she isn’t happy with his answer and says he’s lying. She runs with this. “No, this isn’t what I wanted,” Hal says timidly. “It’s not in the script.” Rebecca isn’t a lawyer—she’s a dominatrix specializing in verbal humiliation and performs a script Hal wrote.
Rebecca has a tendency to go off-script and not follow stage directions. She explains that what her clients need from her is not physical; it’s mental, which is precisely why she’s a no-contact dominatrix. She says, “This might be what you think you want, but respectfully you have no idea.” She knows best. Soon, they are back on script. Hal is cleaning the bathroom, then his reward: “You can jerk off, but if you cum I’ll ruin your fucking life.” During their high-stakes role-playing game and outside of it, Hal and Rebecca are constantly competing for power and control. After their session, Hal informs Rebecca that they cannot see each other anymore. It would be inappropriate, given his new role as CEO. This blindsides Rebecca. He wouldn’t be able to do this without her influence—and she wants compensation. Their respective desire to have the upper hand only grows.
Sanctuary, directed by Zachary Wigon and written by Micah Bloomberg, is a semi-erotic thriller and dark comedy. While shot in one location, the film keeps you engaged with its effective dialogue, some of which is silly and funny, worthy of an audible laugh; its strong performances; and the dynamic directing, framing, and adaptive cinematography by Ludovica Isidori. The camera work includes many close-ups, keeping us close and connected to our characters, making the audience feel as uncomfortable or as powerful as them. The actors also make the most out of the space by moving around, the camera often providing just a decent amount of medium and long shots.
While the script is essential for a single-location film like this, it’s only as effective as its actors; Qualley and Abbott are exceptional. Qualley could easily be perceived as submissive with her doe-eyed appearance, but she holds both confidence and sex appeal with an air of mystery that feels very naturalistic. She also has the impressive ability to act with her eyes. You don’t know what she’ll do next, what she’s capable of. Qually’s Rebecca works quickly and smartly in each situation she gets into with Hal. Rebecca is a complex character whose real personality and motivations are touched upon but not explored as much as I’d have liked.
Abbott delivers a grounded performance as a wealthy man with a meek, insecure side. Like Qualley, his facial expressions flit through a thousand emotions, often betraying him—skilled acting that deepens both characters. Hal is pretending to be someone he thinks he should be—that other people think he should be—but he knows he’s not. He can only be his true self during his sessions with Rebecca. He tells her their time together is “supposed to be the only thing that’s actually mine.” Qualley and Abbott have great chemistry that makes their history feel real and increases the intensity of their verbal sparring, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. There’s also a single erotic sex scene that is going to make you want more.
Sanctuary has an interesting commentary on gender roles and class. As Wigon said in a press release: “A dominatrix occupies a paradoxical position—she’s a woman who simultaneously has all the power over her client and none of the power over her client. That realization instantly raised some profound questions about how and why people enter into role-playing scenarios and fantasy realms and how those realms intersect—or don’t intersect—with ‘real life.’” Dominating Hal might be the only time Rebecca gets to experience such power, but he’s the one who is really in control—he writes the scenes, has the money, and has the physical strength should he wish to use it. Rebecca is paid to be part of Hal’s fantasy, which raises further questions about stereotypes of sex workers looking to rob their clients or blackmail them with incriminating videos. But as Rebecca says, she does more than say the words. It’s about what they represent. Without her, it’d be nothing. Maybe that is power.
There’s uncertainty from the moment Sanctuary begins to the moment it ends. Can Hal or Rebecca be trusted? Who are these people, really? Where do their performance and manipulation end and their honest, genuine selves begin? The ending can be read in many ways. It raises more questions than it answers. Is it really a wrapped-up conclusion to the messy sequence of events we’ve just witnessed? Doubtful.
Sanctuary opens in NY & LA on May 19, expanding theatrically on June 2. A UK release date is yet to be announced.
by Toni Stanger
Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Films, Reviews
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