Rumble Films, 2023
Micah Bloomberg / Zachary Wigon
📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock
Nonfamily dramas with strong adult and/or socioeconomic themes
Movies and TV shows with a lot of dialog
Sex scandals tend to dominate headlines in the worlds of business and politics. Not only is a lot of money and power involved, but the public is often eager to catch these influential figures in both compromising and hypocritical positions. Such scandals have unseated individuals, thrown large entities into brief turmoil, and provided fodder for late-night talk shows everywhere (some of which have similar scandals of their own). However, once the news breaks, very little attention is afforded to the events that may have led up to the information leak. Given the permanent loss of privacy the anonymous whistleblower often suffers, what level of desperation must they have reached to motivate them to come forward in the first place? The new erotic thriller Sanctuary dives into this very dynamic.
Sanctuary drops us in the middle of a long-standing, erotic business agreement between Hal and Rebecca. Hal is a trust fund baby, the mid-30s son of an exceedingly wealthy, recently deceased businessman. For many months, Rebecca has privately served as his dominatrix, role-playing as he wishes and degrading him for his sexual pleasure. With the passing of his father, Hal is set to take over the business as CEO and thus seeks to end his meetings with Rebecca after a final meeting in his hotel room. As he says, he wants to “match his insides with his outsides,” a line he stole from his father’s memoirs. Rebecca is put off by being suddenly jettisoned from Hal’s sex life, and rather than take it in stride, she proceeds to blackmail him immediately after their last hurrah. She informs him that she has video of their sessions and will release them unless he adheres to her monetary demands. Hal must decide whether to give in to Rebecca or call her bluff, letting his secrets be known to his future peers and the public at large.
The notion of powerful men seeking a submissive role in their sex lives may be a familiar narrative. Many judges and politicians have this detail revealed when their privacy gets exposed, rationalizing it as the need to find pleasure in being powerless given the pressures of their powerful positions. Sanctuary subverts this expectation with Hal. Though he has financial security and a business being handed to him, he is quite meek and insecure. While this initially appears to be a by-product of his dynamic with Rebecca, the only other character on screen, Hal’s lack of assertiveness comes through in his phone conversations with others. He never comes across as a powerful, domineering, or self-assured voice when talking to anyone, regardless of status. Deep down, he feels a level of guilt for his advantages in life and remains in his father’s shadow. He grieves his father’s absence, in part because he is not ready for a patriarchal role.
On the other side, Rebecca at first seems to be handling her dismissal very poorly for no apparent reason. She has what appears to be an established business with other clients and has been compensated well. However, her role in Hal’s sex life has made her emotionally invested beyond business. She feels that the only reason he is ready to take over the company is because of the confidence that she has instilled in him through their affairs. Rebecca cites the fact that Hal was very timid when approaching her initially and developed enough self-assurance to write out a script for her to adhere to during their meetings. As the evening wears on, it becomes clear her emotional investment and demand for money go beyond just her pride in Hal’s development.
The one-location indie serves as a long tug-of-war between a character with material power and a character with inner fortitude. Hal can only use his wealth and influence as a way to intimidate Rebecca, while she can use psychology to push back. This back-and-forth lends credence to why Rebecca is svelte and dainty rather than a large intimidating physical presence that the audience might associate with a dominatrix. Her understanding of Hal’s psyche stems from the fact that their role-playing is not so much the physical, S&M style often portrayed in kinky sex thrillers, but more mental. Writer Micah Bloomberg and director Zachary Wigon cleverly reveal the backgrounds of each character during both their foreplay and their haggling, so it never feels that they are bringing it up strictly for the audience’s benefit. Additionally, it explains Rebecca’s last gasp attempt to stay in Hal’s life.
The best comparison for this two-character, one-location thriller is the 1994 film Disclosure, starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. As in every Michael Douglas movie, he plays a lusted-over businessman dealing with a scorned ex-lover (okay, maybe not every movie). Adapted from a Michael Crichton novel, Disclosure co-stars Meredith (Moore) as his boss, suing him for harassment over an encounter that she secretly initiated. Sanctuary feels similar in the sense that the other half of a private, socially taboo relationship has some modicum of power to manipulate the situation against a more traditionally powerful figure.