‘Sanctuary’ – Review

Sanctuary is a perfect chamber piece with the highest of stakes on the table, honesty. A perverse, yet tender thriller about seizing control over others and oneself. Zachary Wigon’s sensual and romantic tale is one for the ages. This film is proof that a two-hander shot in one location can be vivacious and full of life when the director, writer, and actors are all on the same (hypnotic) page.

*This review contains minor spoilers for Sanctuary*

Sanctuary is a sensual, smart two-hander in a single location that starts with colors swirling all across the screen as the Ariel Marx score washes over audiences. The film is a twisty, sexy take on the dissolution of a relationship that slowly breaks down the barriers between fantasy and reality, class, and most of all, control. Zachary Wigon’s sophomore film is anchored by the two go-for-broke performances, but it’s their characters that truly keep you hooked in the story. Both Samantha (Margaret Qualley) and Hal (Christopher Abbott) are feeling trapped in their lives, whether it be in a new position or the lack of stability in life. Their kinky role-playing scenes have become a sort of salvation that they both depend on. Who are they when they leave the hotel room and don’t have the life raft they provide for each other? 

As soon as Rebecca enters Hal’s hotel room, it’s apparent she’s everything he isn’t. She’s sharp, commanding, and decisive. If they’re playing a game of chess, she’s winning. However, screenwriter Micah Bloomberg alongside Wigon quickly let us know all isn’t what it seems with Rebecca and Hal’s relationship. Rebecca presents herself to interview Hal for a standard background, but quickly we learn they’re in a scene and she’s a hired dominatrix who specializes in verbal humiliation.  Hal has written up their scene as a script for Rebecca to follow and after some adjustments, Hal is in his underwear on the marbled bathroom floor, scrubbing away as Rebecca meticulously demoralizes him like insignificant trash.

Rebecca keeps deviating from the script that Hal wrote for them to follow for their scene. She’s operating as if she is trying to hold the same control over her client in their real relationship as he surrenders to her in their roleplaying relationship in the safe space they’ve created in the hotel room. Wigon’s film isn’t focused on the ‘reveal’ of their relationship as he is the dynamic of it. With a therapist, there’s no angle for them over their patient. Hal, like many, has been treating his relationship with Rebecca as a sort of therapy to make changes in the way he operates in his life. While their relationship began as a contract between two individuals, its evolved into something else overtime. Is Rebecca responsible for his ability to lead a company that’s now fallen to him? Does Hal need Rebecca to maintain his confidence? Can Hal go on without his fetishized scenes to have a release? Both Hal and Rebecca are in claustrophobic situation as they need to see how they can move on. Hal drops a bomb on Rebecca that due to his new position as CEO, he can no longer see her. Once this revelation is set in motion, all bets are off. 

Despite what he thinks, Hal and Rebecca are bound to one another; Hal gets to fulfill his fantasies and have a release for them, while Rebecca wields full control over a powerful, wealthy man. Abbott and Qualley have intense chemistry with one another while spewing venom filled dialogue as they embark in a wild game of psychological warfare. Sanctuary is all about control; what one will do to exercise control over someone else or how to simply exert control over your own life. The film is set in a single location, but never loses the volatile tension as the story unwinds. The passionate and toxic words spit out of both Hal and Rebecca make audiences forget about the confined space we’re trapped in with them. As they verbally spar with one another between fantasy and reality, Rebecca and Hal are playing one of the most twisted cat-and-mouse games you could imagine as both are withholding the truth about their not only their intentions, but also their feelings. Both characters feel defenseless and invincible at the same time. Their motivations don’t seem clear to themselves nor the audience. Is Rebecca just playing a game to shame Hal into the man he needs to become? Is she really out to destroy him? 

Sanctuary isn’t about just answering questions, it’s about the chase of figuring it out. This film is proof that a two-hander shot in one location can be vivacious and full of life when the director, writer, and actors are all on the same (hypnotic) page. Ludovica Isidori’s cinematography perfectly plays into the story with the use of unexpected angles to keep the momentum of the everchanging power dynamics of Rebecca and Hal’s relationship. The film may be a sexy romantic comedy, but it’s shot almost like a horror film. The heightened viewing experience of what could come next is only amplified as the score pulsates through each scene. 

Refusing to lean into cliches about sex workers, the sensual film excels as a study of relationship dynamics. While Hal pays Rebecca for her services, and even writes their scenes, Rebecca does much of the heavy lifting and knows exactly how to work Hal. Qualley’s performance is one of her best to date; she carefully portrays Rebecca as sexy and smart without making her come across conniving or opportunistic. Abbott plays off Qualley in the best way; watching two actors operate in such a kinetic way is a feast for any film lover. Sanctuary features a masterclass of acting from both Abbott and Qualley.

Sanctuary isn’t setting out to tell audiences what they want or need. It’s about rediscovering desires and letting go of control. The film is a perfect chamber piece with the highest of stakes on the table, honesty. It’s a perverse, yet tender thriller about seizing control over others and oneself. Wigon’s sensual and romantic tale is one for the ages with performances from Abbott and Qualley filled with desire and desperation.

Grade: A+

Oscars Prospects:
Likely: None
Should be Considered: Best Lead Actress (Margaret Qualley)

Release Date: May 19, 2023
Where to Watch: In Select Theaters

Kenzie Vanunu
she/her @kenzvanunu
Lives in LA with her husband, daughter and dog. Misses Arclight, loves iced vanilla coffees.
Favorite Director: Darren Aronofsky
Sign: Capricorn

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