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Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott Do BDSM Battle

May 20, 2023


This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

It would be hard to say that director Zachary Wigon’s Sanctuary features the best performances from Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley, though that is because each role they’ve taken on in their respective careers has been rather remarkable. What can be said is that neither has taken on such a dynamic work that lets them stretch their muscles like this one before. The duo rises to the occasion as they bring life to writer Micah Bloomberg’s confined story of a dominatrix and her client who meet for their ritualistic rendezvous in a single hotel room. This otherwise normal session then begins to rapidly spiral out of control.
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In command of all this is Qualley’s Rebecca, a quick-witted woman who is keenly aware of the insecurities of her client and how to needle him. From the moment where she first comes to life, breaking free of the confines of the script he has written for her, she is a messy and mesmerizing screen presence who comes at you without ever holding back. She makes this all seem so natural with her every movement and sharp retort drawing you deeper into her mind. Opposite her is Abbott’s Hal, an insecure man-child whose inherited wealth has given him a complex that he has been trying to work out with Rebecca. He doesn’t want to admit that she has helped him and, now about to take over the family business following the death of his cruel father, decides to abruptly cut ties. She soon shatters the idea that he can simply wish her goodbye with an expensive watch and be done with their relationship forever.

What follows is a cinematic battle of wills where the two throw all of their baggage at each other, both emotionally and literally stripping each other bare. They each rely on frequently deceiving and even downright threatening to ruin the other person to try to gain power. It all plays out as a tonal tightrope along the blade of a knife, frequently threatening to tip over into being more dangerous than either seems prepared to deal with. Driving most of this is Rebecca who takes all that she has come to learn about Hal and uses it against him. She knows just the right things to say to put him off balance and the moments where we see her quietly reflecting on just how to do this are delightful. Qualley never sets a foot wrong, crafting layers of performance that push everything further into chaos. She creates a character who is having an absolute ball in turning the tables on the man who has tossed her aside.

Image via Neon

RELATED: Where to Watch ‘Sanctuary’: Showtimes and Streaming Status

For all the ways that Hal tries to get a handle on things, she remains one step ahead of him. As he grows increasingly frustrated, the more we begin to fear that this will reach a breaking point where he lashes out. It is unsettling even as it is enthralling to see Abbott give all of himself to the performance. There are flashes of parts of his prior films, especially 2018’s Piercing, though there is also something far different and increasingly intimate at play here. The more we learn of Hal, the more we get to see Abbott shift from being pathetic to pernicious. There is just no escaping his intense stare that feels both sad and sinister. All Hal’s wealth and the power it brings make him a serious liability to anyone who stands in his way.

Even when he gets loud and begins smashing apart the room following a multilayered trick pulled by Rebecca, the quieter moments are just as flooring. It is great to watch both of the characters getting molded by such confident and compelling actors. You feel like you should look away though you just can’t. The title itself makes clear that the room is much greater than just a physical place. It is almost like a realm out of time when both can retreat to in order to become people that they can’t elsewhere. That this is now under threat, from their own choices and flaws, ensures that its potential destruction carries great emotional stakes. As the film teases out their anxieties and fears, the way they angle for some sort of absolution is arresting. They repeatedly discuss this in the context of “winning,” even as their victory runs in conflict to each other. This glorious tension never lets you go once it has you in its grasp.

Image via Neon

Much of this comes from how the camera quite literally places us right up in the faces of the characters, using intense close-ups that feel almost suffocating. A few key moments even see it spinning and searching the room along with Hal, reflecting his anxiety visually. A simple but spry score punctuates the many revelations that get drawn out perfectly. There are quite a few moments where the camera shakes in ways that become distracting, often taking away from the great performances ever so slightly. There also is a tendency for the film to write itself into certain corners that it doesn’t always cleanly get out of. Equally unfortunate is a conclusion that goes on just a bit too long past an already fitting ending point. It tempers the vibrancy of the rest of the experience that had been shining so brightly otherwise up until then.

Thankfully, nothing could hold these two leads back from creating an evocative experience that is equal parts confession and confrontation. The longer the night goes on, the more we come to learn about the characters and all that they have unsuccessfully tried to hide from the other. It is a character study that creeps up on you, deploying well-timed darker comedic moments that set up the cutting dramatic ones all the better. There is no pretentiousness or ego to either of the stunning performances, ensuring we are hit with the maximum impact of a maniacal masterclass of acting from Abbott and Qualley.

Rating: B+

Sanctuary is in theaters now

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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