A thorny and unconventional love story, Zachary Wigon’s sophomore feature Sancturary plays out more like a modern expansion of Steven Shanberg’s 2002 indie classic Secretary, about two people bouncing in and out of potential love involving S & M roleplaying while also diving into the character’s psyche on what their actual desires and yearnings are, except the result doesn’t come off as oddly charming but rather more tiresome after a while. The tediously executed film starts off promising, but the chamber piece eventually loses steam as the film becomes more emotionally implausible. While it’s releveling to get a fearless, touchy subject matter during prudish times where films aren’t as erotic as they once were, the film never reaches peak sexiness and ends up coming up hollow with an unearned conclusion that feels forced and overstated.
The film, which is a chamber piece that takes place in a luxurious hotel suite, builds itself up as a horror movie or psychological thriller with titled camera angles, red color pallets, and stylized lighting. However, it quickly derails into an endless two-handler of two insufferable, narcissistic characters that quarrel back and forth for nearly 90 minutes. While the power dynamics tend to alter, the context becomes redundant, and the final result is exhaustingly verbose. The film begins with Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), a high-end escort who specializes in role-playing. Her top-tier client is Hal (Christopher Abbott), who is about to become CEO of his father’s multinational hotel company. In the role-playing fantasy that Hal scripted out, it has Rebecca playing an attorney and having Hal answer a very peculiar questionnaire that screens him for his CEO position. Eventually, Rebecca goes off script, and Hal guides her back into character until you realize they are still on script, which is cleverly written by Micah Bloomberg and well-acted by both Abbott and Qualley.
As their role-playing plot thickens, it’s revealed that Rebecca is Hal’s dominatrix and orders him to strip to his underwear and to clean the bathroom toilet and even behind the toilet. Hal ends up finding his pleasure, and the role-playing ends. They break out of character, Hal orders meals, and Rebecca gets a farewell gift of an expensive watch. Rebecca, on the other hand, refuses to let this be the last time. She wants in on Hal’s wealth and begins to feel threatened that she has videos of their previous sessions that can jeopardize his position as CEO with the Board of Directors. We observe the contrasts between the two leads: Hal is privileged, while Rebecca had a far more challenging upbringing. Hal is very sneering towards others on the phone. However, when he’s around Rebecca, you can sense he loses all domineering attributes. While the story has all the markings of being a compelling film about power dynamics, especially in the way Rebecca holds the upper hand throughout the film and eventually falls for Hal’s manipulations, everything ends up feeling surface-level. Sadly, too often the two characters remain one-dimensional and cold, and frankly, they are not as intricate as they appear to be. The film holds a lot of exchanges about blackmailing, tensions escalate, and the two have psychological chess, which leads to Hal losing his temper, and you start questioning if this all is part of another script or not—regardless, what begins playful and interesting quickly derails into monotony and repetition.
While Qualley and Abbott are both solid actors, they seem out of their element in this film. Qualley’s performance remains witless, and she never quite comes off like a dominatrix, neither psychically nor mentally. Sure, we have seen so many domintrix caricatures in films before, and it’s a relief to see a film that doesn’t get silly leather and whips, but the character of Rebecca comes off ridiculous, and Qualley doesn’t convince. Neither does Abbott, who never quite finds the humiliation or pitifulness the character strives for. I just recently revisited Todd Solondz’s Happiness, and I was in awe of how creepily effective the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman was with his previsions played out with his characters. You truly felt unease watching his character, and there was something sad about how pathetic he would go. Watching Sancturary made me realize just how tame and less edgy some of American cinema has become since, at least when it comes to human sexuality.
Aside from cleaning the back of a clean hotel toilet, Wigon never guides Abbott to reach the pathetic depths the Hal character certainly strives for. The film also recalls Secretary, but has far less to say—at least nothing that Secretary already said—but Secretary was far more potent and offered more fleshed-out characters. Once Sanctuary ends, it clearly wants to gloat itself as a screwball comedy with the closing scene. While the film has a fair share of impressive interplays, it too often bounces between sex comedy, satire, and psychological drama, and all the elements don’t quite mesh well. In the end, Sanctuary just becomes another one of those underwhelming verbose chamber pieces that leaves you wishing it had a little more edge.
SANCTUARY is now playing in limited theaters and opens in Michigan theaters Thursday June 1st.