“This is all going to go faster if you tell the truth,” Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) tells Hal (Christopher Abbott) shortly after arriving at his place in “Sanctuary,” supposedly under the pretense of vetting him for a high-level job at a resort chain. The interview doesn’t seem like it could move any quicker when she’s speaking a mile a minute, peppering him with increasingly invasive questions about his weight to his recreational drug use, with Hal finally protesting upon being asked whether he’s had any sexually transmitted diseases, leading him to wonder why the board of directors would want to know such things. Then again, he seems to enjoy the inappropriate nature of such queries, with his concerns revealing themselves to be less about what Rebecca is asking than how she’s asking it.
The camera mischievously drifts away from the action to show that Rebecca is actually sticking to a script pretty closely, but Zachary Wigon’s devilishly entertaining second feature is largely about what happens once she steps away from it when this is hardly the first time that she and Hal have met, though it may be the first time they’ve actually seen each other for who they are when Hal wants to end their relationship as a dominatrix and slave before stepping into a high-profile gig. Using their real names and remaining clothed, the pair has a rather chaste professional connection, but Wigon and screenwriter Micah Bloomberg provocatively explore what intimacy has developed between them when Hal has built his confidence from their encounters and Rebecca inevitably has developed a rooting interest in seeing him succeed, in spite of all the barbs she tosses his way as part of her job.
When the film bears the orchestral swoons of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day romance, Wigon shows he’s clearly in on the joke as Rebecca and Hal dance around the bond they share that love isn’t exactly a part of, though a whole other slew of emotions are. Although Hal sees himself getting off as strictly business, Rebecca is disturbed to think her services are no longer needed and knows more about Hal’s life outside of the 45th floor penthouse than he’d ever be able to imagine, oblivious to both his own stature in the world to some degree as the heir to a wealthy hotelier and the idea that Rebecca could have any outside interests besides what he’s hired her to do.
Cinematographer Ludovica Isidori and production designer Jason Singleton make bold choices to enliven the two-hander with shrewd decisions about perspective and color, respectively, but Qualley and Abbott dazzle all on their own as they spar with one another, a mutual respect between the characters clearly a product of how each actor is able to give as good as they get. In fact, “Sanctuary” ultimately speeds by so quickly, you don’t necessarily want it to end, and like so many of the film’s other deceptions, it’s how “Sanctuary” feels genuinely dangerous that makes it such a welcome diversion.
“Sanctuary” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival on September 15th at 1 pm.