In 2019’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Margaret Qualley emerged as a scene stealer and an emblem of desire—an avatar of free love with some dangerous strings attached. Splayed across the passenger seat of Brad Pitt’s Cadillac Coupe de Ville, coyly deflecting questions about her age (“We gonna play kiddie games?”) and kidding her chauffeur about his own middle-aged vintage (“Obviously, you are too old to fuck me”), Pussycat, her brainwashed Manson acolyte, was both a free-love archetype and a cutie pie original: Qualley had the sly, teasing humor of a young Lauren Bacall, whose own debut at 19 in To Have and Have Not opposite Humphrey Bogart was charged with age-gap anxieties and littered with double entendres.
While Pitt got an Oscar for parrying her come-ons, Qualley—who trained as a ballerina and worked as a model before breaking through in The Leftovers—vaulted instantly to It Girl status, an object of desire ubiquitous enough to inspire an entire Lana Del Ray song. (She’s also a top-tier nepo baby, acting opposite her mother, Andie MacDowell, in Netflix’s 2021 miniseries Maid.) In FX’s 2019 miniseries Fosse/Verdon, Qualley ably inhabited the legacy of Broadway star Ann Reinking. In the show, she performed a faithful reproduction of the “Manson Trio” dance number from Fosse’s 1972 musical, Pippin. More recently, she starred for the great French director Claire Denis in the 2022 festival standout Stars at Noon, playing a waylaid American journalist navigating a perilous Nicaraguan purgatory.
Denis is a filmmaker who likes to push actors to their physical and behavioral limits; tousled, ornery, and resourceful, Qualley played her character like a force of nature, channeling the intensity of previous Denis (anti)heroines like Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche. With its provocative political slant and numerous full-frontal sex scenes, Stars at Noon was a daring choice for an actor on the verge of mainstream superstardom, and Qualley went for it, maintaining a kamikaze velocity from start to finish. Her nervy, committed performance earned mixed reviews, but it was impressive stuff: It suggested the actor was willing—and trying—to push outside an already spacious comfort zone.
Zachary Wigon’s clever new thriller, Sanctuary, isn’t as formidable as Hollywood or Stars at Noon: It’s a deliberately minor, compact movie, a pocket psychodrama running just north of 90 minutes. But it nevertheless gives Qualley her meatiest role yet, and she masticates it down to the bone. Her character, Rebecca, is, at first glance, a promising young woman: a prim paralegal brandishing a briefcase with practiced finesse. But Rebecca is really a shape-shifter: As she implacably quizzes 1-percenter hotel chain heir Hal (Christopher Abbott) about his competency as a potential CEO, she’s unveiled—with plenty of pride—as a professional dominatrix, teasing and ridiculing her client’s virility in the same deep, whispery breaths. Ten minutes into their encounter, Hal’s down on his hands and knees, naked, scrubbing the suite’s commode to a pristine gleam while she lounges nearby, her posture a sly parody of manspreading largesse. She hasn’t just made herself at home: It’s like she owns the place.
It would seem that Rebecca’s host, who really does own the place—and is reeling from his brand-name father’s death and various anxieties about the nature and practicalities of succession—has a submission fetish, albeit a complicated one. For deep-seated psychological reasons tied to his unimaginable privilege, Hal enjoys being mocked and talked down to, with the crucial provision that he provides the self-loathing dialogue down to the letter. And Rebecca, who’s being compensated nicely for her time, makes for a supremely effective ventriloquist’s dummy, and she seems to get off on getting him off—a hint that the manipulative tendencies between the pair are hopelessly interlaced even before things get knotty (and naughty).
The idea of a privileged failson stage-managing his own humiliation (and ejaculation) via a series of acting-class exercises is terrifically funny: If you imagine Roman Roy putting his dirty jokes in somebody else’s mouth, you’ll have a sense of Micah Bloomberg’s screenplay, which is laced with vicious, lascivious invective in every direction. During a pause in the action, we learn that Rebecca and Hal have been playing these funny games for a while now, and they’re both grateful for the transactional nature of their relationship. For Rebecca, who’s basically a working actor, it’s a chance to work on her craft. But when Hal proclaims that he’s gotten everything he needs from their sessions (his insides now match his outsides, he says), Rebecca, whose real life exists at a considerable remove from her well-heeled alter egos, gets tetchy and then desperate. “You’d be unfit without me,” she says, no longer in character or on book (nor beneath her blond wig) but pushing the same condescending power trip. Her logic is sound: If she’s been so instrumental in helping this pampered princeling get over his own performance anxiety and ease into generational wealth, then she’s entitled to more than a firm handshake and a gold watch on the way out. Rebecca is, in fact, coming for half of everything Hal has, and, once the shock of her blackmail threat has worn off, she does a pretty good job of convincing him—and us—that she’s got the ammunition to take him down: secrets and lies.
Having established both of its characters as practiced phonies capable of jamming each other’s hot buttons, Sanctuary proceeds with a series of setups, put-downs, and role reversals, pressurized by the always-lurking possibility that everything we’re seeing is just another layer of fetish play (the title refers to Hal’s safe word, which he doesn’t seem in a hurry to use or else suspects won’t save him this time). Bloomberg, who helped create the Prime Video series Homecoming, is a hardworking, structure-conscious screenwriter, and he sticks to his guns by making the film a true two-hander: There are no other characters and no cutaways to alleviate the encroaching sense of claustrophobia. As far as cinematic duets go, Sanctuary feels a bit like a spiritual successor to Joseph Mankiewicz’s Oscar-nominated 1972 caper, Sleuth—which pitted Laurence Olivier against Michael Caine in a verbose battle of wits, including an all-time great fake-out involving an unexpected intruder—but charged with the sexual tension of Lars von Trier’s Edenic satire Antichrist, whose protagonists, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, were literally named He and She. (Despite the religious implications of its title, Sanctuary doesn’t prod scripture like von Trier’s cult classic, nor does it feature sexual violence.) Another possible reference point: the Before trilogy, if Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy stopped to talk dirty to each other at every canal and cathedral along the way.
If there is something a bit mechanical about Bloomberg’s screenplay, the actors do their best to lubricate it. Abbott, who etched a memorable beta male archetype on Girls—and who was terrifically expressive as a corporate striver whose consciousness is being controlled by a female assassin in Brandon Cronenberg’s gnarly Possessor—is perfectly cast as a guy in over his head, while Qualley’s performance keeps plumbing the depths of witty, weaponized exhibitionism. Whether she’s reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as a Marilyn Monroe–style come-on or evoking Elaine Benes while dancing to a Bonnie Pointer disco hit, she’s got an electric presence. She also has an uncanny malleability that allows her to look different—bordering on unrecognizable—depending on the distance or angle of the camera. Crucially, for a movie about the liberating power of role-play, Qualley contains multitudes.
Part of the credit for Abbott and Qualley’s fine double act is due to Wigon, a former film critic whose 2014 feature, The Heart Machine, was also about a deceptive relationship: a bad romance conducted primarily over Skype between two characters unable to see the totality of each other’s lives. That film was static and cold by design, but Sanctuary has been staged as robustly as possible under the circumstances, using every inch of its executive-class backdrop (and its many light sources) to generate visual interest. (A slow-motion wrestling match for a cellphone atop some ornately patterned carpentry is suitably mesmerizing.) There’s a fine line between inventive and overbearing, and Wigon makes a few plunges into pure abstraction that cross it, although not in any sort of deal-breaking way. For all its underlying anxieties about class, compensation, and gender roles, Sanctuary is a playful piece of work—an exercise designed to keep its actors limber and to make us delight in their flexibility. Hopefully, Qualley will get even more opportunities to stretch soon enough; she may be the rare movie star whose grasp is equal to her reach.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.