There has been much scuttlebutt in recent years over the so-called death of the erotic thriller. While there has certainly been a decline in the subgenre (defined by its intense action surrounding sex and sexuality, like Body Heat or Basic Instinct) over the past few decades, those who mourn the genre usually use this as a Trojan Horse for their favorite creepy genre films.
Indeed, there have been plenty of terrific erotic thrillers in recent years – they’ve just continued to evolve, as all art continues to do as time marches on. We’ve seen Secretary and The Handmaiden, Don’t Worry Darling and The Voyeurs. And now, we have Zachary Wigon’s Sanctuary, a steaming two-hander that emerges as one of the year’s most exciting new works of both erotic thrills and surprising romantic comedy.
For several years, heir to a hotel empire Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott) has secretly met with Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), a quick-witted and imposing dominatrix. They never have sex – indeed, they’ve never so much as touch. But Rebecca uses her intimate knowledge of Hal’s thoughts, kinks, and quirks to sexually degrade him, for both their pleasure. However, when Hal’s father dies, and he’s named as immediate successor, he decides it’s time to put childish things behind him to embrace his legacy – and that includes his meetings with Rebecca.
Upset to lose such a valuable client on such short notice, Rebecca returns to their secret hotel room to negotiate a “severance package” from Hal. What follows is an intense battle of wills between two stubborn people – a battle that will test their intelligence, their commitment, their desperation, and maybe, just maybe, reveal some long-repressed hidden feelings on both their parts. Perhaps even that feeling that goes by the name of “love.”
The film ebbs and flows on the strength of Micah Bloomberg’s edgy, intelligent screenplay. Every moment of the film is a sexy back and forth, constantly reversing and revealing new information and character beats meant to force the audience to question what in our protagonists’ lives is real, what is projection, and what is a carefully crafted persona. Hal and Rebecca both have double lives they must live for their relationship to work, but it also means keeping information from each other – information that only comes out under extreme duress, and must be carefully played like a game of chess.
In many ways, the twisting, turning scenarios they devise for their roleplay become a mirror for their blow-up fight: you never know who has the power and who’s following a “script.” Each perfectly written line and each new reveal works to explore the ever-shifting nature of gender dynamics, power, and self-actualization in the modern world. Take, for instance, the way the film explores Rebecca’s character. Early on in the film, she dismisses Hal’s attempts to placate her with apologies, as opposed to the $4 million compensation she asks for (half of his first-year salary).
What is Rebecca’s driving motivation for this? Is it because she’s tired of being undervalued by the men in her life, including Hal’s efforts to cast her off with a watch and some cash? Is it because she’s trying to provide a sense of self-worth and actualization in a world that only respects her for her sexuality (despite her clearly impressive intellect)? Or is it just subterfuge to avoid admitting her burgeoning feelings for Hal?
The brilliance of Sanctuary is that all of these interpretations appear to be true. While Hal and Rebecca clearly represent gender roles in the modern world, and their own discomfort with their lot in life, it’s also apparent that their motivations are at least partially romantic. Ultimately, they just don’t want the night to end, in order to continue whatever f*cked up relationship happens to work for them. It’s a brilliant set-up, and Bloomberg’s crackling screenplay perfectly brings it to life.
Bloomberg’s brilliant screenplay is equally matched by Zachary Wigon’s sharp direction. Wigon runs a tight ship, and pulls the best work from his crew, from Ludovica Isidori’s smart cinematography to editors Kate Brokaw and Lance Edmands’ taut pacing. No one is breaking the mold here – they’re just using their craft to create kinetic energy palpable to the viewer. Wigon and his team are so skilled, they can make the cliches feel fun – as obvious as it may be to turn the camera upside down when a character’s world turns upside down, it feels fitting here as we watch these two continue to lie and manipulate and f*ck with each other.
All of this hard work comes to life at the film’s center, with the commanding performances of Abbott and Qualley – two actors at the top of their game perfectly playing off each other. Abbott intricately plays a man desperate to keep his private life hidden – even from himself – and the result is a flustered, internalized performance of depth and intellect. Qualley, meanwhile, is full of life and passion and just a hint of insanity – watching her spontaneous nightmare fuel (including an impromptu manic dance set to “Heaven Must Have Sent You”) is just pure adrenaline. Together, they possess a strong chemistry that reads romantically, sexually, and all that falls in between.
The only gripe that can be found in the film’s taut, titillating 90-minute runtime is the ending. In particular, the last five minutes. While the conclusion falls in line with what the audience hopes for and anticipates, it also doesn’t feel realistic. We have spent an hour and a half getting to know these characters and understanding their inner workings. We also understand how this film interacts within the realm of realism.
Sanctuary’s ending defies both what we know about the characters and strains against believability in a noticeable way. Now, did I ultimately care when watching the film’s version of a “happy ending,” or let it ruin the film as a whole for me? Not at all. But it is still noticeable enough that it has to be addressed.
Ultimately, though, Sanctuary is everything that, deep down, we all not-so-secretly want a film to be. It’s nasty, funny, sexy, romantic, and entertaining. It features a director on the rise and a delectable double-hander by its talented, sexy leads. It’s imperfect, but it finds mastery within that imperfection.
This is a film that, even through the foul taste of the ending, you still declare “I can’t wait to see that again – and I did, going to see it again a mere few days later out of a desire to live with these characters again. This is a masterful film, and a treat for any adult film fans willing to be stimulated – perhaps in more ways than one.
Sanctuary is now available to rent on VOD; it is also playing in select theaters nationwide