To watch Sanctuary is to be continually surprised. The plot never goes exactly where you expect it to, and each new turn of events catches you off guard. It begins with wealthy Hal (Christopher Abbott) in a swanky hotel room owned by his late father’s corporation – the very same one he’s poised to take over. A visitor comes to the room. She is a lawyer preparing to help seal the deal. Her questions are invasive and personal, and when Hal becomes defiant, she lashes out, forcing him into an act of sexual humiliation.

The woman, you see, is not really a lawyer. She’s Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), a dominatrix Hal has hired to help him play out a kinky fantasy. That is the first of the film’s revelations and the only one I will divulge. They have a long-standing professional relationship that he now wants to end, due to the prestigious nature of his pending job. Rebecca does not like the idea of ceasing their meetings, a fact she makes crystal clear.

Sanctuary is not Fatal Attraction. It isn’t a tale about a woman scorned by a man and seeking revenge. That would be too easy. Director Zachary Wigon and writer Micah Bloomburg are interested in power dynamics. Rebecca obviously knows all the deep, dark issues Hal shows to no one else. This affords her considerable leverage. At one point, she tells him that she knows what he really needs far more than he does. The choices she makes confirm this. Hal is the employer, yet Rebecca holds all the cards. If acting out these domination fantasies has aided him in resolving issues so that he’s prepared to run a prominent business, doesn’t she deserve a lion’s share of the credit?

The story here is intensely psychological. Hal attempts to one-up Rebecca multiple times over, only to find she is several moves ahead of him. Two-person movies run the risk of feeling claustrophobic or stagey. Sanctuary avoids that peril because the back-and-forth adversarial dialogue gradually unveils what lies in both characters’ souls. Like an onion being peeled a layer at a time, Hal and Rebecca strip away their defenses until both are laid bare. In its own way, the film is suspenseful, given that we don’t know where either of them will end up, or what the state of things between them will be when the end credits roll.

A picture like this only works with strong acting. Christopher Abbott continues his string of turns playing oddly damaged men that also includes Possessor, Black Bear, and On the Count of Three. He creates a nice mixture of male bravado and deep-seated insecurity. The dynamo, however, is Margaret Qualley. She does career-best work here, and that’s saying something in light of her exemplary performances in Novitiate and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. In her hands, Rebecca always knows precisely what button to push. She understands when to be forceful, when to show vulnerability, and how to get under Hal’s skin. Not once does Qualley hit a wrong note. She deserves serious Oscar consideration.

Witnessing the two actors as they portray Hal and Rebecca’s ballet of dysfunction is thrilling. I’m not sure I 100% buy the final resolution Bloomburg’s script devises for these indivdiuals, but that’s okay. Sanctuary is bold, provocative, intermittently shocking entertainment that you won’t be able to look away from.

out of four

Sanctuary is rated R for sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.