Sanctuary Movie Review: Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott Both Shine in This Single-Room Psychological Thriller

Movie Review: Sanctuary and its single location premise may feel light for a feature length film, but stellar performances by Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbot, as well as tight direction by Zachary Wigon, helps the movie stay fresh and alive.

Sanctuary movie Margaret Qualley Christopher Abbott NEON Films review
Sanctuary Movie Review

Sometimes, these lean and concise, single location thrillers can be right up my alley – and other times that can feel completely dull and stale by the time the title sequence rolls around. I wasn’t all too worried about this issue leading into Sanctuary, given that actors Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott have strikingly high success rates in my personal estimation, and that I feel obligated to see anything NEON Films chooses to distribute considering their previous releases.

But Sanctuary was still coming from a relative newcomer, director Zachary Wigon, whose past work I’m not too familiar with because the only feature credit to his name is a directing and writing one back in 2014 for a small film titled The Heart Machine. Needless to say, I felt rather blind going into Sanctuary beyond the acting styles of the two leads and an idea of what NEON Films releases generally consist of.

And I’m relieved to feel like Sanctuary is another singular piece of work that feels like a breath of fresh air in a constant glut of studio franchise work. I wasn’t too surprised to find myself liking the technical work and the craft within the movie, but I was excited to see a tried genre piece done in such a new and unique fashion.

Sanctuary follows Hal’s (Christopher Abbott) attempts to cut ties with Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), a dominatrix he’s been seeing for some time now to relieve the emotional blocks he always imposes upon himself. What ensues is a battle of wits and morals as the two play a game of cat-and-mouse to salvage whatever they can from the impending separation that could mean significant changes for the two.

It’s hard not to immediately feel how lean and commanding Sanctuary feels from the very beginning. There’s not a second wasted in this concise 96 minute psychological thriller, and Wigon is constantly able to find new ways to position the battle between Hal and Rebecca in a new light and under new circumstances.

The performances really carry the film to new ground, as Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott consistently find new ways to infuse new characterization into both of their performances. Qualley is given the runway that so few actresses are able to perform with in a leading role like this – it truly feels like the gender roles are reversed in Sanctuary, and both Qualley and Abbott commit to the dichotomy in incredible ways.

The cinematography also excels in Sanctuary, because often movies like this suffer from growing old because they don’t maneuver much beyond the main setting. Camera movements and flourishes that I would normally label as tacky or showy enhance the viewing experience here, making the movie feel like a new wave version of an angsty early 2000s movie, or even something prior to that.

Both the sound and score also lend themselves to this same notion. I thought occasionally about another Christopher Abbott film while watching Sanctuary – that Possessor has always felt like a hyper-modern take on the horror genre. But while Possessor finds new angles in tech and futuristic advancement, much of the modern feel with Sanctuary comes from the technical achievement behind the camera and in the edit.

And they help build towards weighty themes of success and who truly builds the complex organizations riddled throughout society – and who should reap the benefits from it. Hal is set to inherit a hotel empire, but it’s kept ambiguous how much Rebecca has helped groom and nurture Hal into being that worthy successor – how much they’ve communicated with each other, what prior meetups have entailed, etc.

Sanctuary keeps you wanting more information, but it only hands out the necessary details that help drive the point of the story home. It pulls the rug out from under you quite a few times, but it never attempts to do too much or stick around too much. It’s tight and played straight down the middle, a tough ask considering the material occasionally gets so bleak and deranged.

There’s a leap in tone towards the end that you’ll need to be able to get behind in order for Sanctuary to fully win you over. For nearly the entire runtime, the movie operates as a supremely psychosexual and excessive thriller, operating under the rules set by another era in filmmaking. But it transitions into something much more fantastical and unordinary for a film in this lane, a true hail Mary that I can’t help but give an ode to, even if it doesn’t totally match the energy before it.

It didn’t push me away from still liking Sanctuary, but I’ll surely be wrestling with the final lingering moments as the year goes on, even up to the point where I decide to position this in my year end list – because I feel certain it should land somewhere on a list like that, I’m just not sure where that’ll be yet.

Qualley’s performance just feels that monumental, and the ability to twist a movie with this premise while still being consistently fresh and revealing feels like a feat of its own. If you can stomach how complex and constantly maneuvering Sanctuary can be, it’ll be impossible not to pull something new from it with each given viewing.


Genre: Drama, Thriller

Sanctuary is available to rent and own on VOD here

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Sanctuary Movie Cast and Credits

Sanctuary movie poster and cast Margaret Qualley Christopher Abbott NEON Films review


Margaret Qualley as Rebecca

Christopher Abbott as Hal


Director: Zachary Wigon

Writer: Micah Bloomberg

Cinematography: Ludovica Isidori

Editors: Lance Edmands, Kate Brokaw

Composer: Ariel Marx

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Sanctuary movie on IMDb

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