Movie Review | "Sanctuary" is a sensual, surprising thriller 

click to enlarge Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott in "Sanctuary." - NEON
  • NEON
  • Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott in "Sanctuary."
The first image in Zachary Wigon's 2023 film "Sanctuary" is a luxury watch, comfortably resting inside a case in someone's hands, accompanied by ominous ticking. It signifies a running theme throughout: what Wigon does so effectively with Micah Bloomberg's screenplay is not immediately let the audience know what looms ahead.

Wigon takes his time cluing his viewers in as to what is actually happening within "Sanctuary." His slow-and-steady approach to unraveling the plot makes the movie successful, when it easily could have played as a lurid thriller. Wigon isn't interested in twists and cheap thrills; he's interested in his characters' actions and motivations, their insecurities and desires.

The man holding the watch is Hal (Christopher Abbott), an heir to a hotel empire, who is sitting alone in a lavish suite. A knock at the door brings in blonde-bobbed Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), donned in a dark green pantsuit. It appears the two are meeting on official business, as Rebecca seems to be a part of a law firm representing "The Board." She begins asking Hal a series of questions, which grow increasingly invasive and personal as she continues. What could this stranger from a law firm need to know about Hal's sexual history and drug use?

During the questionnaire, "Sanctuary" begins to shift into focus as it becomes clear Hal and Rebecca aren't the strangers they appear to be. Rebecca is a dominatrix who Hal pays in an effort to make him feel like his true self. He has prepared a script for Rebecca to recite, allowing her to assert her dominance over him through his own words. The only difference with their latest session is Hal wants it to be their last. Cue the watch, which he extends to her as an affluent olive branch, but plays like his own way of having an upper hand on her.

All of this happens in the first 15 minutes of the movie. What unfolds throughout is a fascinating two-hander performance between Abbott and Qualley. Rebecca isn't happy about Hal's decision to terminate their professional relationship, storming out in a bit of anger and acceptance. She then returns to the hotel room once she realizes she could continue having dominance over Hal's decisions. There's no grand twist or shocking moment in "Sanctuary," because the movie is about watching the process of its two characters try and meet on each other's terms in a battle of wits.

Abbott's performance is the kind we have come to expect from the actor, who exudes a young Pacino-like intensity. The actor is attracted to dark indie film roles, having recently given one of his best performances in Jerrod Carmichael’s "On the Count of Three" – "Sanctuary" is another chance for him to operate within a space he feels oddly comfortable. Qualley is the lightning rod of the movie and continues to grow as such an interesting performer to watch (her Emmy-nominated role in Netflix's "Maid" is heartbreaking in every episode). She's fierce and fragile in "Sanctuary," channeling more overt nuance through her performance than the script requires from Abbott’s brooding character.

The film is primarily set in the hotel room where Hal and Rebecca meet, occasionally venturing into hallways or elevators. The limited space and intimate cast suggests the movie was a COVID-era production, but makes great use of such confined areas. It's easy to write a single-set movie off as a "filmed play," but Wigon elevates that simple notion. His camera is fluid and constantly moving throughout, which gives the movie propulsive pacing even as it takes its time unfolding. It's fitting for a story where not everything (or everyone) appears as it seems.

Some of the tension in the final moments of the movie feels deflated as it teeters on losing its edge, but "Sanctuary" sustains a sense of unease right up until that moment through Wigon's direction and Abbott and Qualley's performances. The characters surprise the audience–almost as much as they surprise themselves.

“Sanctuary” opens Friday, June 2 at The Little Theatre. Tickets here.

Matt Passantino is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback about this article may be directed to Editor Leah Stacy, [email protected].
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