Hannah Strong


Sanctuary – first-look review

Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott act out their fantasies in Zachary Wigon's thriller about a dominatrix and her wealthy client.

Breaking up is hard to do, per 60s crooner Neil Sedaka’s classic song – Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott), presumptive heir to his father’s vast hotel fortune, is about to discover this as he attempts to end things with Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). The nature of their relationship blurs the line between personal and professional; she’s a no-contact dominatrix who specialises in verbal humiliation, and has been providing her services to Hal for a lengthy amount of time.

But with Hal’s father recently deceased, it’s time for him to ascend to the throne, and Porterfield Jr recognises the optics of being involved in a complex situationship with a sex worker might not be the best. He’s arranged one final tête-a-tête, in the plush suite of his father’s Denver hotel where they usually meet. But Rebecca hasn’t been playing this game only to lose the final hand. When Hal attempts to fob her off with a fancy watch and a handshake, she thinks she deserves a little more compensation.

Zachary Wigon’s sophomore feature – written by Micah Bloomberg – is a chamber piece for two, as Hal and Rebecca vie for the upper hand with bitter barbs and flirtatious exchanges, making it consistently difficult to tell who is prey and who is predator. In the age of sexless cinema we’re currently living through, it’s refreshing to see well-matched leads in film which doesn’t shy away from intimacy, though the script could perhaps delve more into the nature of Rebecca’s job and her motivation for doing it, and does in places echo more cliche views of sex work (ie. that its natural end point is romance, and that the women who do sex work are shrewish schemers looking to trap their clients for financial gain).

Despite the imperfections within Bloomberg’s screenplay, Abbott and Qualley sell the hell out of it – they possess an easy chemistry that fluctuates between desire, desperation and despisal. It’s the second time Abbott has starred in a film set in a hotel in which a blonde sex worker gets the better of him, and while Piercing was a more bloodthirsty affair, there’s plenty of psychological warfare taking place this time around.

As they verbally spar the lines blur between fantasy and reality, with Rebecca and Hal both withholding the truth about their emotions and intentions. The game of cat and mouse that takes place within their hotel room is enough to keep the viewer guessing, with Qualley in particular an intriguingly withholding performer, juxtaposing her expressiveness with hidden motivations, while Abbott plays the posturing rich kid with a meek side well. If anything, perhaps Sanctuary could stand to be a little bolder with its portrayal of a modern sub/dom relationship – Secretary this ain’t – but it’s a sleek, stylish romp all the same.

Published 6 Mar 2023

Tags: Christopher Abbott Margaret Qualley

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