It seems like a spontaneous pivot, fueled by a genuine power struggle. Then director Zachary Wigon cuts to a script on the suite’s dining room table, and we learn that “going off script” was in fact written into Hal’s script for the scene. This shot is the key to unlocking the entire film: If what we just saw was fabricated, then how much of what follows is actually “real?”
The cast in “Sanctuary” is spot on. Abbott, who, funnily enough, starred in another sadomasochistic comedy set in a hotel room in 2018 named “Piercing,” gives a pathetic puppy-dog face like no other actor working today. And Qualley, focusing the tumultuous energy of her character in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” gives off a cold, but wounded vibe that makes you believe that she might actually do all the unhinged things she says she’ll do if Hal breaks off their “arrangement” as promised.
Hal says he has to stop seeing Rebecca because he’s about to ascend to the role of CEO at his family’s gigantic hotel company (that’s right, he’s a nepo baby) and he can’t risk having his deviant extracurriculars exposed once he’s in the big chair once occupied by his late, Trump-like father. The thing is, submissive Hal is wholly unsuited for the cutthroat world of business. Any backbone he does have is the result of his relationship with Rebecca, which includes genuine care and affection as well as perverted, no-contact sex acts. Rebecca knows this and decides to get what’s hers.
The characters’ true motivations aren’t revealed until the final moments of “Sanctuary,” and the film doesn’t totally click into place until that happens. At its heart, this is an old-fashioned screwball rom-com built on banter, not an edgy BDSM-themed thriller. The controlled chaos that leads up to this revelation sometimes feels like it’s going in circles, and the delayed gratification of finding out what’s really going on here can be frustrating. “Sanctuary” is a tease.
This is a film fueled by writing and performance. Writer Micah Bloomberg’s script ingeniously incorporates the movie’s themes into its structure, and Qualley and Abbott—but especially Qualley—playfully keeps the audience guessing throughout. (Rebecca’s apparent talent as an actress is another complicating factor in the film’s sense of reality or the lack thereof.) Even so, there are times when everyone seems to be filling time with misdirection until the trick can be revealed.