There’s something so riveting and enjoyable about seeing two people going at each other in a single location. That is exactly what Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott do (quite literally) here in Sanctuary, a kinky, hilarious look at power dynamics and gender roles.
Hal (Abbott) is a Porterfield, which means he is to take over his just-deceased father’s empire of hotels – we’re talking hundreds around the globe. In a swoop, decades of wealth and power will be handed to him on a silver platter. The problem, though, is Hal has a thing for power, as in he’s fine to give it up. That’s because he likes to be told what to do. He likes to be dominated. The most important person in his life is Rebecca (Qualley), a dominatrix who not only treats him like he’s her best client but genuinely cares about him like a partner.
That is until Hal tells Rebecca that he can’t see her anymore. He must own up to his new title and become better, which means she needs to be out of his life. As you would expect, she doesn’t take it well. She wants more than just a stupid retirement gift. And from that point on, the film spins out of control, into a twisted, pervy battle of wills between the two, all filmed and choreographed in a hotel room.
Two Performances Carry the Whole Show
Essentially written like a one-act play, nearly all of Sanctuary rests on these two performances, as we watch them go back and forth and try to out-dom the other. Words are thrown like sharp knives, as Hal and Rebecca blur the lines between what’s real and what’s roleplay, as they figure out on the spot how to win and get ahead. These moments are particularly effective because the script shapes these two as complex individuals rather than archetypes.
We get a few glimpses at who Rebecca is as a real person, but just as quickly, she slips back into character almost like a survival tactic. The personality shifts are mesmerizing to watch, as Qualley demonstrates her versatility as an actress. Her body language and sharp line deliveries give her so much on-screen presence that can only be balanced by Abbott’s sensibilities. He walks a fine line between being the most physically strong person in the room and being the most pathetic. Hal’s (reasonably understandable) tantrums give the film some form of danger and stakes, but it is really his hatred of himself and his sexual tastes that keep the narrative unpredictable.
Perhaps the most admirable quality about the film is in director Zachary Wigon – he never steals the spotlight. Though the camerawork does twist and turn and the film resorts to some diffused colours and an eccentric score, the technical components never rival the performances. With the film having two people engaging in BDSM and having that reveal who they truly are, there is no reason for the directing to distract. Sometimes, the content speaks for itself and you need just enough form to elevate the material.
The Best Kind of Self-Contained Film
With films shifting to fit the pandemic era, the one benefit we seem to be getting is more and more proof that films don’t need much to be good. You just have to have a good script and good performances, and so many other pieces will naturally align and work for you.
Sanctuary is a film that proves this idea wholeheartedly. Though it may feel a bit stretched out to feature-length at times, it is a self-contained story that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and that is a hilarious but thoughtful exploration on the healthy benefits in BDSM between two consenting partners.
Wigon shows his talent in keeping his film interesting and unpredictable in such a fixed location, knowing that he has a dynamite duo to carry the show from start to finish. Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley sizzle on screen together. They keep Sanctuary fun, suspenseful, and arousing, down to the perfectly delivered last line.
Sanctuary screened as part of TIFF 2022, which ran from September 8 to 18. Head here for more from the festival.