Review: Sanctuary

Take off your pants.


There are about five minutes in Sanctuary in which nothing really strange happens. They come right at the beginning. We see a classy blonde knocking on the door of a luxury hotel suite and then a guy opening up and inviting her in. He brings out a bottle and we wonder if there's some sort of kicky sex romp in the offing. In any other movie, maybe. But this is definitely not any other movie.  

Sanctuary was shot in under three weeks in a single room, basically, and it's a perfect little film—wonderfully well-written (by Micah Bloomberg) and sleekly designed (by on-his-way-up director Zachary Wigon). And the acting—a two-hand triumph by Margaret Qualley (as Rebecca, the woman at the door) and Christopher Abbott (as Hal, the guy who lets her in)—radiates chemistry and deft humor. (Star quality, in other words.) The pleasure in watching the movie comes from navigating its crafty narrative as it ping-pongs along on a stream of ever-twisting plot permutations and sharp, slicing dialogue. The teasing uncertainty is part of the fun. 

The story seems clearly to be going one way at the outset. Rebecca, rather oddly, has brought along a briefcase on her visit to Hal's hotel suite. It's filled with job application forms, which she uses to pry into Hal's surprisingly dull life. She asks him when he lost his virginity. Hal says 13. Rebecca says he's lying.

"This is not what I wanted," Hal suddenly says. "It's not in the script." "I can tell you put a lot of thought into this," Rebecca says, with maximum disdain.

Rebecca is a dominatrix of a specialized kind. Like others of her order, she doesn't trade in sex, but offers only scorn and castigation. And this is what Hal wants—or wanted, when he first got into this weird relationship with the woman. But now Hal's wealthy, disapproving father has died, leaving his son to run the family's luxury hotel chain. This will require Hal to become a man at last—a scenario in which there's no place for Rebecca. But Rebecca will not be easily dumped. 

There are some wonderful scenes in this picture. Early on, in Hal's suite, we see Rebecca asking where the bathroom is. Hal points her toward it. Rebecca looks inside and, after a disappointed pause, says, "This needs to be cleaned." (Qualley, a master of nuance, makes this simple statement sing.) Hal is of course just the pathetic worm for this job. "There's dirt," Rebecca hisses at him, down on his knees scrubbing. "You're just too lazy and sloppy to find it." 

When Hal tries to eject Rebecca from his life with the gift of a $32,000 watch, she lets it be known that she has bigger things in mind. For instance, the hours of video of their humiliation sessions that she's secretly recorded. "Please don't ruin my intolerable, pointless life," Hal says. Have any two lovebirds ever been more ideally matched? 

The story is not without insights. When Rebecca tells Hal that he owes her big for installing some backbone in him with their little power sessions, Hal disagrees. "You didn't teach me anything," he says. "I wrote the scenes, you just said the words." "But the words are not what's going on," she says. Then she puts a knife to his throat and says, "Take off your pants."