Review: ‘Sanctuary’ (2023), starring Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott

May 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott in “Sanctuary” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Sanctuary” (2023)

Directed by Zachary Wigon

Culture Representation: Taking place in Denver, the dramatic film “Sanctuary” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A dominatrix’s client tries to end his relationship with her, but she has other plans.

Culture Audience: “Sanctuary” will primarily appeal to people who are interested in watching well-acted dramas where the main characters play a lot of mind games.

Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott in “Sanctuary” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Role playing and power struggles are at the center of “Sanctuary,” a talkative psychological drama about a dominatrix and her client. The dialogue can get repetitive, but the cast members’ lively performances make the conversations more compelling. The movie (which has some dark comedic elements) does a fairly interesting presentation of the age-old question about sex workers and their clients: What should be done when the relationship might become more than transactional? “Sanctuary” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by and written by Micah Bloomberg, “Sanctuary” could easily have been a stage play. That’s because almost everything in the movie (except for flashback scenes) takes place in a hotel suite, with a very long conversation as the basis of the story. The conversation takes place between a dominatrix named Rebecca (played by Margaret Qualley) and her client named Hal Porterfield (played by Christopher Abbott), during and after one of their sessions.

“Sanctuary” (which takes place in Denver but was actually filmed in New York state) doesn’t reveal until after the first 15 minutes that Rebecca and Hal are in a dominatrix/client relationship. The opening scene shows Rebecca arriving at the Hal’s hotel suite. He’s the scion of Porterfield Hotels and Resorts.

Rebecca, who says she’s from the Lichter-Haynes law firm, is there to “interview” Hal for a liability affidavit that is included in a background check. It’s part of an evaluation process that Hal has to go through to determine if he’s acceptable to the company’s board of directors, who have to decide whether or not Hal will get the company’s CEO position. Hal seems a little nervous but confidently ready for the questions he’ll be getting.

At first, Rebecca (who has the mannerisms and outward appearance of efficient young legal executive) asks questions that seem typical for a personal background check. She asks Hal to confirm his date of birth. He says it’s April 7, 1987. But when she asks him his height and weight (which aren’t really appropriate questions), Hal lies and tells Rebecca that he’s 6’2″ and 200 pounds, which is taller and heavier than he really is. Rebecca mildly scolds him for telling her this lie.

Rebecca then asks Hal what his history is in taking legal and illegal drugs. He tells her he takes prescribed medication and that he’s taken recreational illegal drugs “thousands of times” in his life. Hal also says he’s been in treatment for alcohol addiction. Rebecca comments on the fact that Hal is drinking alcohol during the interview.

And then, the questions get inappropriate. Rebecca asks Hal if he has any sexually transmitted diseases. Hal tells Rebecca that he doubts that question is part of the affidavit. She insists that it is. Rebecca then asks Hal when he lost his virginity. He tells her he was 13, but she correctly guesses that he was actually 25. Rebecca grows increasingly hostile with Hal and starts berating and insulting him.

Rebecca then writes on her legal pad, “Hal Porterfield fucks like Caligula.” She then orders him to get on his knees and clean the bathroom in the suite. It’s soon revealed that Rebecca isn’t really a law firm employee who’s there to take an affidavit. She’s a dominatrix who’s been hired by Hal to do say these things to him to get him sexually aroused so that he can masturbate in front of her.

Hal (who really is a hotel heir) wrote the entire script for this encounter too. Rebecca is a dominatrix whose rule is that the clients don’t touch her, and she doesn’t touch the clients. Hal has been her client for an untold period of time, but the movie implies that it’s been at least several months. In other words, they’ve done this type of role playing many times before. Hal also isn’t a job candidate for CEO of Porterfield Hotels and Resorts. He already has the job and has recently been appointed to the position.

All of this information is revealed early on in the movie. And this revelation is the point where viewers will ether be intrigued or will not be interested in seeing the rest of the film. The rest of “Sanctuary” is a back-and-forth conversation where Hal tries to get Rebecca to leave because he wants to end their relationship, but Rebecca wants the upper hand and tries to prolong the stay as long as possible.

Why does Hal want to end the relationship? It’s not because he’s bored with Rebecca. In fact, after the session, Hal genuinely compliments her on giving another great performance. Rebecca takes off her straight blonde wig to reveal her natural brunette curly hair, which is an indication that she’s not “working” at that moment and is being “herself.”

Hal invites Rebecca to stay a little while and have a meal with him, even though he’s intending to end their relationship. There’s something about Rebecca that’s making Hal very uneasy, so he wants to stop seeing her. Viewers with enough life experience will figure out exactly what’s going on, long before the movie ends.

“Sanctuary” is meant to be an often-uncomfortable watch as these two people, who are both control freaks in their own ways, try to one-up each other in their power dynamics. Gender roles (traditional and non-traditional) have an effect on these dynamics. It should come as no surprise that Hal has “daddy issues” and is living in the shadow of his deceased mogul father Phillip “Phil” Porterfield. (Dominic Defilips portrays Phil as an elderly man, while Rene Calvo portrays Phil as a young man.) Rebecca is less forthcoming about her own personal issues, but eventually the cracks begin to show in her emotional shields.

Because “Sanctuary” is essentially about two people talking in a hotel suite, the movie lives or dies by the performances of Abbott and Qualley. Abbott gives the more credible performance, since Qualley has a tendency to over-act in some scenes. They both handle their dialogue like two people locked in a fencing match—and neither one wants to back down or admit defeat. It’s a battle of egos, wits and complicated feelings that might leave viewers feeling exhausted but unlikely to be bored.

Neon released “Sanctuary” in select U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.

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