Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), a mysterious, mercurial careerist, enters Zachary Wigon’s “Sanctuary” with a determined knock on the door of an expensive hotel suite. The room — make that the entire 40-plus story hotel, and the 111 other hotels in the luxe Porterfield chain — belongs to Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott), the founder’s son, a self-loathing lump in pleated khakis who is in line to become the successor of a billion dollar company.
“Presumptive successor,” Rebecca says.
“Successor,” Hal rebuts, with middling conviction.
Hal’s ascension to power hinges on Rebecca — at least, so she claims — and his quavering insistence that he can do the job on his own doesn’t convince her (or us) otherwise. Unlike Hal, Rebecca was raised in poverty. (She didn’t even see a dentist until she turned 19.) What clout does she believe she holds? The film has the confidence and generosity to allow the audience to ask its own questions before it makes its first (of many) giddily upending reveals. In essence, screenwriter Micah Bloomberg has ushered the audience into his lair, placed us atop a pile of lush rugs, and now pulls them out from under us one after the other.
From the moment Rebecca crosses the hotel room’s threshold, it’s readily clear that she possesses every quality that Hal lacks. She’s crisp, decisive, and commanding, stalking their quarters like a predatory bird. But Wigon seeds clues that she’s not the woman she’s pretending to be. First, you might notice that her blond bob is a wig. Then comes the creeping sense that their conversation is screwy. What starts as a formal interview quickly becomes personal, then impolite, then plain wrong. Within minutes, it’s admitted that both characters are acting out a play, and not long after, Wigon will reveal what the characters already know: Hal has hired Rebecca as a dominatrix, and this humiliating scene they’re enacting is his prewritten fantasy. But the twist is just “Sanctuary’s” opening gambit, a hand the film plays early to warn everyone to stay on high alert.
Look closely whenever cinematographer Ludovica Isidori moves her active, intelligent camera. As she pans over to the script pages of this scene-within-a-scene, tossed into a corner of the bathroom, those who read fast will see that Rebecca is reciting her right lines, but refusing to obey her stage directions. It’s a hint that she believes she knows Hal better than he knows himself. This might be true. But it’s also true that neither she, nor he, have exactly planned out the wreckage that will ensue once Rebecca discovers a chance to squeeze even more cash from her client — and in turn, Hal’s would-be CEO realizes that this night is his chance to see if his employee has done her job and empowered him with boss-level courage.
What comes next is a showdown between her force and his financial clout, between labor and the lordly class. “I-I pay you,” Hal stutters, as he attempts to redefine their roles and put himself in charge. But who is he under the bluster? The dweeb we’ve seen scrub a toilet on her demand? Or the spoiled scion who truly can order her downfall as easily as we’ve seen him ring up room service for a steak, two martinis, a bottle of wine, a hot fudge sundae, and a Belgian waffle with passion fruit jam. Hal looks soft. But greed and privilege are in his bones, and the fun of Abbott’s performance is seeing his character strain to transform his puppyish features into those of a wolf.
This is a terrifically nasty thriller about seizing control, over others and over oneself. Wigon proves to have a great grasp on it, as well; his assuredness is half of the film’s success. In look and style, sound and execution, Wigon’s hand is felt on every frame — a steadiness that’s essential when each scene is constructed on a sand dune of constantly shifting emotional dynamics. One moment, the characters are using a formal corporate dialect (“Pleasure doing business”) over a sophisticated piano score that could have played for Ilsa and Rick in “Casablanca”; the next moment, they’re smashing lamps.
While it’s tough to buy the characters’ final choices — and the climax feels more tidy than correct — the details that build us toward it are precisely right, from the long, slow squeak of Rebecca’s finger as it investigates a mantle for dust, to the exactitude of Isidori’s camerawork as it observes Rebecca enter a room as a blur and stride forward into sharp focus. Qualley can play all angles of her character from ferocious to vulnerable. She does for the film what Rebecca does for Hal: grab a fiction by its neck and will it into credibility by her own bravado.