Zachary Wigon, director of 2014’s involving but underseen The Heart Machine, offers another story of confused impulses and competing desires in Sanctuary, a two-hander set almost entirely in a single hotel suite. Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott make an exceptionally good team here, in a film that requires a deep sexual chemistry but keeps sex itself almost entirely out of the picture. Careening from one kind of intensity to another, the encounter excites without prurience and, like the transactions it depicts, is more concerned with psychology than sex in any case.
Abbott plays Hal, the heir to a vast hotel fortune who has spent a chunk of his pampered youth in an odd relationship. He regularly meets a dominatrix (Qualley’s Rebecca) in his family’s hotel, writing scripts with which she will goad and humiliate but never sleep with him. Preparing to take over the company now that his father has died, Hal knows it’s time (as it once was for Shakespeare’s Prince Hal) to give up potentially scandalous pleasures. As he awaits Rebecca’s latest visit, he prepares a goodbye gift and anticipates a friendly farewell.
The Bottom Line
A twisty, surprisingly heartfelt battle of wills.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Christopher Abbott, Margaret Qualley
Director: Zachary Wigon
Screenwriter: Micah Bloomberg
1 hour 35 minutes
It grows harder each year to buy into fictions about rich people who, with all their physical and practical needs met, must invent new ways of being unhappy and stranger pleasures to pursue. (Succession and other hits suggest this isn’t a problem for everyone.) But the conflict we’re about to see would be very hard to envision without the unseen presence of vast sums of money, and it’s more than worth enduring the film’s Richie Rich stuff to get to it.
Rebecca arrives, pretending to be a stranger sent to conduct a business interview, and the two play out their usual narrative. When they’re finished they sit down to a decadent room service meal, during which Hal announces (as if they both knew this day was nigh) that it’s time to stop meeting. “I need to match up my insides with my outside,” he explains, referring to his need to be seen by the business community as “a person who wins.”
But after accepting this news and bidding him farewell, Rebecca pauses at the elevators. This businesslike kiss-off isn’t right. She goes back to Hal’s room to argue that, without her services, he would never have achieved the self-confidence necessary to run this company. Like a member of the proletariat with a rare bit of leverage, she announces, “I want what I’m worth, relative to what you have.” A luxury retirement watch isn’t going to do.
Tension, obviously, ensues. Films set in hotel rooms seem to require reversals, and this one offers plenty as the two argue, cajole, threaten and tease. Though their arrangement has always involved him pretending to be at her mercy, whenever he feels cornered in today’s conversation, he’s quick to acknowledge his wealth, assuming it gives him sole power to decide how things will end. But she’s too intelligent and too crafty to accept that. At several points she finds ways, some honest and some not, to assert her own power and make Hal truly frightened.
Occasionally the film breaks to catch his breath, with punctuating interludes of abstract color washes. Early on, letting these remind one of Punch-Drunk Love feels like the wrong interpretation. But as the picture progresses, revealing some deep and tangled dependencies between the two, a distant kinship to that movie seems less impossible. Are we perhaps witnessing a love story that’s simply been polluted by money? Is there a way through all this that doesn’t end with a man ruined by scandal and/or a woman’s corpse buried in the foundation of a new hotel?
Both actors ride this roller coaster with an emotional intelligence beyond their years, but the scenario ensures that Qualley owns the show. This is a sex worker whose imagination isn’t limited by her job; watching her manipulate Hal, sometimes fueled by her own desperation and sometimes, seemingly, for sheer retributive pleasure, is an intense kind of fun. (Practically none of which has to do with arousal, although Rebecca does have an astounding “Happy Birthday, Mis-ter Pres-i-dent” moment reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, wringing eroticism from the mundane.) And while the smart money’s on her, Micah Bloomberg’s script makes it impossible to guess with confidence how things will be resolved.
Without getting into specifics, this battle of wits and wills is bitter one moment, darkly hilarious the next, with occasional threats of simple physical violence. Buried beneath this (sometimes far beneath) is the tenderness between two people who’ve shared unusually intimate moments and, at least for Hal, exposed secrets in an environment they’d agreed to keep safe. (“Sanctuary” is their safe word, which appears never to have been used.)
If the movie were less captivating on its surface, you could spend plenty of time finding metaphors in it for more ordinary forms of employment, in which bosses can fire at will regardless of how deeply they have relied on an employee in the past. But Sanctuary is too fun to turn into a socialist lesson plan. By the end, in fact, it’s kind of a thrilling, if momentary, escape from such stuff.