Film Review: Sanctuary | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, October 4th, 2023  


Studio: Neon
Director: Zachary Wigon

May 21, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Director Zachary Wigon keeps his audience on uncertain ground for almost the entirety of the new psychosexual thriller Sanctuary. As its leads (Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott– indeed, the only people in this chamber piece) face off in an evening of high-stakes roleplaying and blackmailing, one is never entirely sure when each character is being real or donning the mask, but an unmistakable haunted quality permeates the proceedings. When tensions rise and our players are increasingly bathed in a supernatural green light, there’s no doubt about it: ghosts are lurking.

Rebecca (Qualley) arrives at the hotel room of Hal (Abbott) for what we understand is a regular appointment as his dominatrix. What starts as standard roleplay in which Rebecca interviews Hal for a CEO position becomes heated when she begins inquiring about his sexual history. Hal seems distressed as things veer off course further, with Rebecca dropping the act altogether and seeming to not merely dominate Hal, but pull him apart psychologically. Before you know it, Hal is undressed on the bathroom floor, cleaning behind the toilet, pleading for gratification. Just as Rebecca grants his wish (within the bounds of their agreement: “degenerate, no-contact sex”), a glimpse of a script reveals that things haven’t gone off-course at all. Hal himself designed the scene to devolve from a fairly basic scenario into something more intimate; something more real, maybe.

Afterwards Hal offers Rebecca an expensive watch, which she soon learns is a parting gift. Hal’s father has passed away, meaning the insecure, ineffectual puppy that is Hal is in fact on the precipice of becoming the CEO of a major corporation, and as such has decided to terminate his arrangement with Rebecca. This is a problem, as Rebecca has dropped all other clients and even ended relationships to be available to Hal. One assumes the pay is good, but something beyond that has drawn her in. She feels that if Hal is at all capable of being a businessman, it is because of how she has trained and improved him in their sessions, and now she wants her cut of his windfall. What follows is a wild night of threats and negotiations as these two get to the root of what they’ve really been doing together and what they really want.

Writer Micah Bloomberg has a ball weaving his thematic threads through Sanctuary’s various genre influences, ranging from erotic thriller to possession horror to screwball comedy, and miraculously things never feel scatter-brained or cobbled together. Sharp dialogue and keen observations abound, all held together by two excellent performances. Abbot in particular shines in a role well-suited to his penchant for pitiable entitlement. Qualley may be a tad young to believably pull off some of the chutzpah this role requires, but she is a captivating screen presence and masterfully reveals flashes of Rebecca’s pain and desperation. Cinematographer Ludovica Isidori’s moody, saturated work here feels exciting and fresh, though occasionally Sanctuary bumps against its single-setting premise (some wacky camera-work in particular feels like a bit of the old razzle-dazzle).

This is a sexy movie about sex. This is an adult movie about adult things. These are rare qualities these days. As such, in addition to being entertaining, absorbing, and thought-provoking, Sanctuary is also rather audacious. It is reassuring that it exists! As for the aforementioned ghosts, think not of ghouls from beyond the grave, but rather the alternate versions of ourselves that loom overhead. The version we’re expected to be, but can’t; the version life never gave us an honest shot at. Sanctuary may leave you wondering just what is haunting you.

Author rating: 7/10

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Average reader rating: 1/10


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