If you’re someone who regularly bemoans the dearth of movies for adults, then take heart: “Sanctuary” is here for you. Shot almost entirely in a single location and in just 18 days, Zachary Wigon’s supremely confident second feature (after “The Heart Machine” in 2014) is a jet-black romantic comedy hidden inside a twisty psychosexual thriller. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
It scarcely matters. The writing (by Micah Bloomberg, a creator of the 2018-20 TV series “Homecoming”) is so sharp, the acting so agile and the cinematography (by Ludovica Isidori) so inventive that what could have been a stuffy experiment in lockdown filmmaking is instead a vividly involving battle of wills. On one side we have Hal (Christopher Abbott), the presumptive heir to his recently deceased father’s chain of luxury hotels. On the other is Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), a brisk beauty who arrives at Hal’s plush hotel suite, pulls out a sheaf of papers, and proceeds to ostensibly review his suitability to take over as C.E.O.
But something is off; and as Rebecca’s questions grow increasingly inappropriate — and Hal’s responses appear blatantly untruthful — it’s revealed that she’s his longtime dominatrix, playing her part in a well-worn scenario. This time, though, Rebecca is improvising on Hal’s meticulously pre-written script, and his displeasure is only the first point of friction in a dizzying series of power plays that swing from sexual to financial and, finally, emotional. Alongside, Isidori’s cheeky camera mimics the pair’s volatile maneuverings, swooping and flipping through 180 degrees as it tests the limitations of what is essentially a two-character play, transforming it into something that’s often thrillingly cinematic.
Unfolding over one fraught night, “Sanctuary” dances on the border between fantasy and reality. Hal, a soft-shell weakling who’s nonetheless steeled by entitlement, wants to begin his new life as “a person who wins.” As such, he feels the services of a sex worker are surplus to requirements; and as he moves to end his relationship with Rebecca, his actions — providing a lavish dinner and the gift of an expensive watch — insultingly mimic the familiar tropes of the retirement ceremony. He’s about to find out, though, that this employee will not be pensioned off so easily.
Both actors are excellent, but Qualley is chameleonic in a role that requires her to slide seamlessly from playful to stern, cunning to confrontational, penitent to downright scary. At times, as when Hal erupts with unexpected violence, her face freezes and we can almost see her contriving ways to regain control of a suddenly dangerous situation. If she’s to succeed, she’ll need more than a talent for debasement and humiliation.
Sexual but not sexy, “Sanctuary” is fantastically dynamic and emphatically theatrical. The ending feels too smoothly settled, but it at least prods Hal and Rebecca to answer the film’s central question: Where does role-playing end and real life begin?
Rated R for nasty talk and naughty behavior. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters.