This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival

A dominatrix and her wealthy client engage in the most elaborate power struggle during one night in a luxury hotel suite in “Sanctuary,” director Zachary Wigon’s twisted psychological love story / thriller. The film’s tone is uneven and inconsistent and the direction is lacking, but the two lead performances are terrific.

Hal (Christopher Abbott) is the heir to a major company and will soon be taking over as CEO, which means it’s time to cut ties with the longstanding professional relationship he’s had with a dominatrix, Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). When he tries to break it off with an expensive goodbye gift, she’s not having any of it. This leads to a wild night of sexual game playing and psychological torture, as the power shifts and sexual dynamics converge in a tornado of chaos.

As a viewer, this constant back and forth makes the film extremely frustrating. By the very definition of her profession, Rebecca is a person who holds and exerts all the power over her client. The twist here is that Hal also has a significant amount of power. They both are master manipulators and can control each other on a whim. This aspect of the film becomes more irritating than compelling, especially when it’s impossible to tell who’s telling the truth at any given time.

It’s one big charade. Hal doesn’t think much of himself, as it is made evident in the elaborate, belittling scripts he writes for Rebecca to recite, word for word. She knows he has daddy issues and plays to his weaknesses. His power over her is all about the money. The story loses its edge when Rebecca engages in a bit of blackmail, exposing an unfortunate pettiness from which her character never recovers.

There are some sophisticated ideas about gender and capitalism at play, but they’re drowned out by situations that feel like they were solely added to the screenplay to push buttons or at least garner some uncomfortable, cringey laughter. What begins as a feminist-leaning story transforms into one that’s more off-putting and problematic.

When a film has a cast of just two actors, they better be strong enough to support the material. Thankfully, that’s not a problem here. These are two complex characters, and Qualley and Abbott skillfully embody them. She plays Rebecca as an unconventional therapist of sorts, and he is believable as a broken man with a poor self image.

The dominatrix thriller genre isn’t huge, and “Sanctuary” is well acted and provocative. I found the filmmaking to be amateurish and disappointing however, and this project is unlikely to find a large audience. It’s a festival film and nothing more.

By: Louisa Moore

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