THE STORY – Disaster ensues when Hal, a wealthy man, tries to end his relationship with his dominatrix.
THE CAST – Margaret Qualley & Christopher Abbott
THE TEAM – Zachary Wigon (Director) & Micah Bloomberg (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 96 Minutes
On their own, Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott have been two of the most exciting up-and-coming actors working for quite some time now. The former has quickly defined herself as her own artist outside of her Hollywood lineage (as the daughter of 90s indie darling Andie MacDowell) thanks to scene-stealing supporting turns in “The Leftovers,” “Fosse/Verdon” (for which she earned her first Emmy nomination), Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and for her ravishing performance in 2021’s “Maid” (for which she earned her second Emmy nomination). The latter, after breaking out as Charlie (the boyfriend of Allison Williams’ Marnie) in HBO’s “Girls,” has seen his star profile skyrocket after his Golden Globe-nominated work in 2019’s “Catch-22” and his omnipresence in the indie scene courtesy of artistically progressive projects such as “Black Bear,” “Possessor,” and “On the Count of Three.” Thus, when either Qualley or Abbott are headlining a new feature, their involvement alone is reason enough to have your interest piqued. But putting the two of them together? Well, that’s the stuff dreams are made of, and Zachary Wigon’s “Sanctuary” is the full proof of that fact, delivering a tonally twisty and sensationally sexy love story for sickos that can only work as well as it does with two expertly trained thespians at the top of their craft. Thankfully, Qualley and Abbott are a match made in masochistic heaven.
When “Sanctuary” starts, the audience is meant to view Qualley’s Rebecca and Abbott’s Hal’s initial interactions as their first. She arrives as a “representative” for his late father’s hotel empire – which he is now inheriting – intending to run over some “pertinent” information with him for “the board.” It doesn’t take long for the conversation to travel in a dirtier direction, and the reality of the situation then becomes clearer; Rebecca and Hal are merely playing parts, and this is the latest in a string of sensual encounters in which Rebecca, paid by Hal, acts as his dominatrix and demeans him verbally and emotionally for his own sexual satisfaction. It also becomes clear that Hal’s attraction to these activities stems from his feelings of inadequacy in his wealth and esteemed family. Primarily by living in his father’s lofty shadow, but when looking beyond what brought them together, it seems that Rebecca and Hal have developed an intimate personal relationship aside from their professional dealings. However, both remain hesitant to admit the depth of their affection. Unfortunately, Hal unexpectedly announces his intention to end the relationship, as he believes he needs to start “behaving in a way more becoming of a CEO.” But this is not an announcement received well by the emotionally unpredictable Rebecca. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, she’ll make him regret this decision, expressing both her enamored for and exasperation with Hal in a manic and manipulative fashion.
Single-location films – which “Sanctuary” is – can be hit or miss. After all, for every “12 Angry Men,” there’s a “The Whale.” For a film of this format, its success comes down to three elements: how propulsive the pacing is, how dynamic the direction is, and how alluring the acting is. And on all three fronts, “Sanctuary” is an unmitigated and undeniable home run. Screenwriter Micah Bloomberg has turned in one scorcher of a script, which not only offers a torrent of tumultuous twists and turns over the 90-minute runtime but also provides multifaceted meditations on codependency, toxic relationships, and what love really looks like in the modern age. Additionally, director Zachary Wigon retains this electrifying (and often oppressive) energy with his frenzied yet fiendishly deliberate direction, which constantly throws his characters, and audience off-balance with creative and commoving camerawork (which blends well with cinematographer Ludovica Isidori’s inspired photography) that captures the cacophonous chaos and confusion of Rebecca and Hal’s conflict. Last but certainly not least is the pair of passionate, powerhouse performances from Qualley and Abbott, who are so commandingly committed to these roles from start to finish that their own star identities fall by the wayside; we only see Rebecca and Hal – and their turbulent yet titillating tug-of-war.
The beauty in Qualley and Abbott’s performances isn’t just their ability to portray the exaggerated and ever-escalating energy of Bloomberg’s script perfectly but their insistence in mining these often monstrous personalities for multidimensionality to find the authenticity – and honest humanity – amongst the anarchy they indulge in. For its first half, “Sanctuary” is most definitely a war-of-wits (which is both horny and horrifying), with Rebecca and Hal using one another’s weaknesses against the other and hitting each other where it hurts most with brutal verbal and psychological blows. But as the contention continues, their secret sentiments emerge, and the raw complexity of their relationship takes center stage. The film suddenly contorts itself into one of the most messed-up romantic comedies you’ve probably ever seen, with each possessing potent emotions for one another but unable to express them in any competent or communicatively effective manner. This added wrinkle breathes new life into the film, making it seem as if you’re watching a whole new movie entirely, yet one that still fully fits with its first half. This turns “Sanctuary” into a far more compelling contemplation on the complications that arise from the combination of sex, control, and real romance, culminating in what will likely be one of the most satisfying final scenes (and utterly sublime final shots) you’ll see all year. The summer movie season is synonymous with bombastic blockbusters, but “Sanctuary” shows that there are just as many fireworks that can arise from the unfiltered expression of our unruly human feelings, and for that, it undoubtedly deserves a spot in your May moviegoing schedule.