The interview is going poorly. Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) has a lot of pointed questions for Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott), heir to a booming hotel empire. He seems pretty chill aboutt answering her questions, but it’s clear she doesn’t like what she’s hearing. His height and weight is clearly a lie. So she presses him further with more personal, intimate questions, like how frequently he masturbates. Rebecca has shown up for business. With her business suit, tight blonde hair, and briefcase full of papers she is clearly someone used to being in control. Hal is reluctant, but willing. This should be going better than it is.
The veil comes down as frustration bubbles over. This isn’t a typical business meeting. Rebecca is in a complicated, no-touch relationship with Hal, controlling him as a high-priced dominatrix. Before long, she has him on all fours cleaning up a messy bathroom, and denying him the sexual gratification he so covets.
Everyone has their kinks. There is power in knowing what another person’s kinks are. That power is explored through the prism of wealth, class, and gender dynamics in Zachary Wigon’s fun and flirty two-hander, Sanctuary. As Hal prepares to take his place as CEO of a very high-profile company, he tries to gently end his relationship with Rebecca for fear of what it could mean if publicly revealed. His attempts to do so, buy playing nice and even buying her an expensive watch, go over like a lead balloon. Realizing the power she has over Hal with this knowledge, Rebecca decides to play it for all of its worth.
But…is this exertion of her control also part of the game? Wigon deftly slips and slides between the power dynamics at play, so that we’re never quite sure who has the upper hand or what their true motivations are. Each one has specific cards to play, some playful and some potentially deadly. Rebecca has no qualms using her power to seduce Hal and lower his defenses, only to twist the knife with a threat that would keep them tied-together “in perpetuity.” Things get serious when Hal, who has been controlled his entire life, finally gets the advantage and violence looks like his answer to the whole Rebecca problem.
Unfolding like a well-choreographed theatrical performance, one could easily see Sanctuary adaptated for the stage. Qualley and Abbott skillfully navigate the intellectual and sexual brinksmanship, showing strength and vulnerability in measured doses, whenever one will suit their character best in the moment. Because sometimes showing a bit of weakness is just another move in Rebecca and Hal’s twisted chess game. If anything, Wigon and screenwriter Micah Bloomberg could’ve pushed things even further, especially when exploring how wealth, influence, and status impact a person’s emotional needs. Even more interesting would be how the denial of such things can push someone to become cold, calcuating, and domineering.
While it goes to some dark places, Sanctuary always feels like a really kinky meet-cute. The sexual attraction between Hal and Rebecca is obvious, but what happens when what the heart wants is entangled with the need for psychological dominance? When two people find that they share the same kink, even if it throws the rest of their life into chaos, can they ever truly let one another go? There are plenty of comfortable rom-coms out there, but Sanctuary is a surprisingly beguiling and witty romance for those who like their love stories to need a safe word.
Sanctuary opens in select theaters on May 19th, before expanding nationwide on May 26th.