Forget about your fiancé and meet him at the hotel room. Preferably with wigs, hidden cameras and ruses if we are allowed to have requests. We're checking in because of psychological chamber drama Sanctuary, directed by Zachary Wagon and written by Micah Bloomberg, which tackles a taxing power struggle between our two main characters. Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) is a dominatrix arriving at a lavish hotel room where she's having a session with Hal (Christopher Abbott) whom we learn is a soon-to-be CEO of the hotel chain, having lost his dad recently, essentially making him even wealthier and more powerful. Rebecca and Hal's night together soon goes off script—literally since Hal had written one—as it becomes a tense cat-and-mouse game after he says that it'll be their last session.
Sanctuary shines a spotlight on acting and here it's really just a two-hander with Qualley and Abbott having the opportunity or responsibility, depending on how you want to look at it, to maintain tension and create captivating characters that you wish to observe. Mostly their efforts are successful, even though Qualley in the second act reverts a lot to ACTING in all caps as her facial movements are a bit overcharged in comparison to what she does in the beginning and near the film's conclusion. Fittingly, her and Abbott's performances are harmonising more when their characters are on an equal playing field. Abbott is able to come in and out of scenes with tremendous dexterity, using his posture, shaky voice or eyes to seek or relinquish control in Hal and Rebecca's dynamic.
Another important element when it comes to keeping things moving and shifting is the work done by editors Kate Brokaw and Lance Edmands who use intense closeups or slower cutting rhythms to leave you with either of the two characters, as if to switch your allegiance from one to another repeatedly. That's crucial because Bloomberg's wordplay sadly isn't doing that even though the dialogue should be the film's strongest asset, elevating it from a solid, small drama to something noteworthy. His script isn't paying off enough of what has been said or left unsaid even when it has been something heinous or manipulative. Qualley and Abbott do a lot to compensate for it, almost enough in fact.
Frowneys: Dialogue, screenplay
BEAU IS AFRAID
Parents, forests, testicles, theatre, cruises, monsters and judgement, pick your poison and be very, very afraid. Someone who is picking all the poisons is the titular Beau, played by Joaquin Phoenix, in Beau Is Afraid which is writer-director Ari Aster's new surrealist comedy extravaganza and an exploration of one's nightmarish odyssey in the sea of terror. Beau Wasserman is a quiet, yet extremely anxious middle-aged man who skips out on visiting his mom Mona (Patti LuPone as older version, Zoe Lister-Jones in flashbacks) before getting the unfortunate news that she has died tragically. In a highly hallucinatory state and suffering a serious accident, Beau sets out to travel to her funeral. Along the way, he meets a bizarre couple, Roger (Nathan Lane) and Grace (Amy Ryan), as well as his past, present, future and all of his fears.
You surely can't blame Aster for trying because with Beau Is Afraid, the filmmaker seems to be completely unleashed which is both great and disappointing once you see what comes out of it. Aster's voice and fingerprint feels wholly original and he's going for it even when the ''it'' is something quite abstract to a viewer. Inventive, resourceful production design by Fiona Crombie brings Aster's vision to life with a blossoming effect, changing things every 15 minutes or so, creating Beau's hellish environments in a way that never lacks depth or ingenuity.
The big chandelier-sized problem of the movie is that Phoenix isn't able to take you on that hellish journey as you can actively see him making choices instead of being open to them, giving an impression that Phoenix in this mode might be the worst possible scene partner imaginable. Awkward pauses or skipped answers to questions are poor choices and it's a flaunty performance for a role that doesn't really have a hint of charm. That disconnection is why you're bothered by Aster's repetitive story beats, uneven character work and severe pacing issues from the second hour until a suitably poignant ending (with a great Richard Kind outing as Dr. Cohen). Beau Is Afraid is admirable but due to one massive false note ringing in the main melody, it's sadly a swing and a miss.
Smileys: Originality, production design
Frowneys: Joaquin Phoenix, pacing, story