Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) is very good at her job. Excellent, in fact. So good that Hal (Christopher Abbott), a wealthy hotel heir, regularly pays Rebecca top dollar to come to his suite in a blond wig and engage in scripted role-play scenarios that serve as theatrical frameworks for his preferred kink: humiliation. Rebecca is his long-term dominatrix, a sex worker who never touches him, or any of her clients, because what they need from her is not physical, but mental, emotional. Rebecca has the ability to coax Hal’s release with mere mettle and highly specific choices in line delivery.
This is the premise of Zachary Wigon’s sophomore feature, “Sanctuary” — scripted by “Homecoming” co-creator Micah Bloomberg — in which the transactional relationship between Rebecca and Hal unravels during a tense power play between the two. If a gamine young starlet dominating Abbott in a lushly designed hotel room sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Nicolas Pesce’s 2019 film “Piercing,” in which Mia Wasikowska enters a luxe arena to do psychosexual battle with the actor.
The gamine young starlet here is Qualley, who, with her tumble of brunette curls, resembles her mother, Andie MacDowell. But Qualley is edgier than her mom, more mysterious, and not just in her choice of darker roles. Her eyes are not so smiling, her accent not in the least bit honeyed, and she puts that spikiness to excellent use in this one-setting psychological tussle, her Rebecca a bedeviling riddle to Hal, who spends the duration of their interaction trying to discern just what in the hell she wants.
Their sexual games end all too soon, but over dinner, their encounter becomes a negotiation. Hal, on the verge of taking over his father’s role as the head of the hotel corporation, offers Rebecca a generous retirement gift and a sincere thank you for her services. He needs to move on, but they had some great times together and he cherishes the memories and the personal growth he experienced thanks to their playtime.
But Rebecca feels she’s entitled to something more than a watch, having spent her time and energy grinding this man into a fine powder and building him back up again. Isn’t that worth something more than a $30,000 timepiece? How about half? How about all? She starts to move the goalposts, much to his dismay.
The slippery thing about “Sanctuary” is that we — and Hal — never know when Rebecca is in or out of character. There seem to be layers and layers of manipulation — or is it preparation? — on her part. So, like a befuddled client, we can only try and keep up with her as her demands grow outlandish. Or are they?
Wigon applies a controlled sense of style to this two-hander. The suite, stuffed to the gills with richly colored wallpapers, draperies and furnishings, never feels claustrophobic, and Wigon thoughtfully evolves the cinematic aesthetic to reflect the shifting mood and dynamics between the characters, cinematographer Ludovica Isidori’s camera following suit.
Static shots frame the duo in profile during their scripted role-play, but when Hal’s upper hand slips, the camera whips back and forth between them as Hal and Rebecca jockey for the power position. As the situation grows dark and dire, the camera goes low and canted; a scene of surprising intimacy sees Qualley breaking the fourth wall, staring into the lens as if into a lover’s eyes, seducing the audience.
The score by Ariel Marx is classical but quirky and inquisitive, lending to the sense of conscious construction that lingers around the edges. Qualley’s performance feels somewhat artificial and theatrical (and at times even cutesy) as she enthusiastically tears into every nuance and mood swing with gusto, while Abbott feels more natural and plausible. Perhaps that’s by design. Rebecca is a mystery, and her high-energy unpredictability could also be a negotiating tactic for this very unconventional boardroom.
But as these two reach the climax of this scenario, it falls a bit flat. It becomes clear that Bloomberg and Wigon understand and have the ability to convey what a straight man wants from this situation far better than they can express what a cis female sex worker might want. Because ultimately, what Rebecca wants, and what Rebecca gets in “Sanctuary,” feels like pandering to a passé notion of girl-boss empowerment that rings unfortunately false. All the excellent acting and sumptuous style can’t cover up that the culmination of this tête-à-tête is disappointingly hollow with an ironic bow on top.
Rating: R, for sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Starts May 19, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, downtown Los Angeles; AMC the Grove 14, Los Angeles; AMC Burbank 16