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‘Sanctuary’ review: Finding love in depravity

By June 2, 2023No Comments4 min read
A photo still of Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbot in SANCTUARY

Margaret Qualley dominates in Sanctuary, a tight sexual thriller also starring Christopher Abbot and directed by Zachary Wigon.

Can there be love in domination? The former term implies care and affection for something you hold precious, while the latter involves aggressive control of someone implied to be weaker than the other. With the dominatrix subculture and dom/submissive fetish growing in popularity over the years, it makes one wonder how a person can feel romantic infatuation or sexual gratification from a process so mean-spirited. Aren’t romantic feelings stemming from torture a loose way of defining Stockholm Syndrome? 

It could be hard to unpack that topic in any environment, but the feature film format of Sanctuary makes it fascinating. The setup and players are kept as simple as possible: a chic hotel room with classy furniture is the spot of a tense profiling for Hal (Christopher Abbott), who is about to takeover his recently-deceased father’s hotel empire despite having an unassuming presence and uncaring attitude toward his pending responsibility. He’s being vetted by Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), who slowly turns from strict legal aid to playful temptress trying to arouse a real response from Hal.

It turns out, Rebecca is a dominatrix reading lines from a script that not only demands Hal be stripped of his clothes, control, and dignity, but was written by Hal himself. It’s a frequent occasion but still notable, as Hal tells Rebecca tonight will be the last time they’ll be having “fun” together so he can enter his family’s legacy with a clean slate. Rebecca is stunned, demanding Hal pay her half of his million-dollar salary for the first year or she’ll start telling others about Hal’s private life. 

Margaret Qualley (left) hovers over Christopher Abbot (right) in SANCTUARY.

“You wouldn’t be able to do it without what I taught you.”

Despite its taboo subject nature, Sanctuary is written and directed more like a classic cat and mouse game. Writer Micah Bloomberg (Homecoming) gives and takes the advantage from Hal to Rebecca and back in even doses throughout the movie’s 96-minute runtime. Director Zachary Wigon (The Heart Machine) occasionally spices up the movie with camera tilts and hazy color collages in between scenes, but those are unnecessary flourishes of style when the movie’s story and character development are more than enough to hold attention. Wigon is skilled at emphasizing the tension that can come from dominating someone in any scenario, whether it be Rebecca telling Hal precisely how to “finish” cleaning the hotel bathroom or Hal calling Rebecca’s bluff on how much control she actually has at any given moment. 

Are Rebecca’s threats part of a well-planned con or someone desperately shooting from the hip to protect her meal ticket? Sanctuary doesn’t give up the game until its restrained conclusion, but Wigon and Bloomberg’s work make it about more than kink. The movie touches on sexual vulnerability being the most dangerous state anyone can be in because it reveals truths too shameful to say out loud. Hal’s daddy issues can be identified from his first scene in the movie, but how it informs what gets him off completes the picture of his tragic character: the heir to a throne he’d rather serve than sit on. Rebecca, meanwhile, is dominant in every scenario except her own life and is trying desperately to make the most absurd fantasy one could think of into reality. Sanctuary is about two people crashing into each other with all their emotions, and while they get a somewhat baffling idea of a happy ending, the sparring between the two is worth the price of admission. 

The bottom line. No pun intended.

The story has a give-and-take element to it, but make no mistake: Sanctuary undoubtedly belongs to Qualley. Part femme fatale and part indie dream girl, the on-the-rise starlet makes the best case to be a leading actress here with her engrossing wide eyes and fearless poise. Whether she’s sitting down or on top of Abbott. She sells the most depraved acts of sexual mind games while still throwing splashes of innocence throughout her performance. Abbott is capable as the sad sack errant son well out of his depth, but the way Qualley’s turn looks to shake him to the very core is a testament to the presence she has in any scene. It’s too easy to say she dominates the movie, but she excels in nearly every aspect of the enveloping tension throughout the runtime.

The greatest attribute to Sanctuary is its ability to talk about modern emotion through a taboo base. Its premise could’ve been taken into exploitation territory, but the script and the performances dig deeper to find heart in depravity. It knows when to be cold for dramatic effect and when to show the wounds of its characters as a means of grounding them. Even in a room where you’re told when you can or can’t ahem release, love will truly dominate.

Sanctuary is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of NEON.

  • SANCTUARY - 7/10
Jon Winkler

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