Christopher Abbott, left, and Margaret Qualley in "Sanctuary." MUST CREDIT: Neon

In "Sanctuary," all is never quite what it seems. This is clear from the first minutes of this playful and play-like (often too much of both) two-hander, which takes place almost entirely within the confines of a hotel room shared by a man named Hal (Christopher Abbott) and a woman named Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). They aren't "together" together: He is not just the occupant of the room but the owner of the hotel itself, and she has just arrived to interview him to determine his suitability for the job of running his wealthy family's chain of boutique inns, in the wake of the death of the company's founder, Hal's father.

But something isn't quite right. Is it Qualley's prim, blond business bob, which looks like a wig, or her strange line of questioning, offered with a mix of inappropriate intimacy and uncalled-for aggression that doesn't sound like something her attorney character would pursue? Gradually, it becomes apparent that Rebecca is a dominatrix, and not just for the night: Hal is her longtime client -- they actually have a relationship, it seems, one that straddles the professional and the personal -- even though Hal intends to sever ties with her coldly, forcing her into an early retirement with the presentation of an obscenely expensive, yet bizarrely ill-suited gift: a watch.

That is not the oddest thing in this odd little film by Zachary Wigon, working from a too-clever-by-half screenplay by Micah Bloomberg ("Creative Control"). Over the course of an evening, Hal and Rebecca maneuver and spar -- verbally and physically -- over his decision to fire her and her reluctance to accept the dismissal. There is sex, in a manner of speaking, involving Hal cleaning what already appears to be an immaculately clean bathroom floor, in his underwear, with a toothbrush, but there is nothing hot about it. (Rebecca remains nearby, without ever touching Hal. It's the mental stimulation he needs, according to her, not physical.)

Eventually, it also becomes clear -- thanks mostly to Rebecca, who is more like a therapist than a mistress of the dark -- that Hal doesn't really want the job, and that Rebecca kind of does.

She at least is better suited to it, although what that says about corporate life, I'm not going to speculate on.

There are elements of the screwball rom-com here, but "Sanctuary," whose title refers to Hal's safe word -- he will eventually need one -- is neither romantic, funny nor screwy (except in the other way). The film also has the air of a thriller, without being especially thrilling or suspenseful. It's a chamber piece, a theatrical hothouse, as faux as phony can be.

I will say that the cozy ending, in which carefully constructed facades come crashing to the floor -- with the thud of more, not less, artifice -- came as a surprise, as it may to you, based on everything that precedes it. "Tell the truth," Hal pleads to Rebecca at one point. "Lying is so tiresome."

And maybe that's the problem here. Although the performances are strong and committed -- especially Qualley's -- the movie is little more than a conversation between two people who are constantly, maybe even constitutionally, full of it. For that reason, when they finally cut the baloney, trying to make us believe that they've gone straight at last, it is hard, nay impossible, to buy it.

  photo  Margaret Qualley in "Sanctuary." MUST CREDIT: Neon

More News