Last December, I talked to one of Baltimore’s primary theatrical exhibitors, and I asked them about post-pandemic attendance. Anecdotally, I saw crowd sizes grow practically one person at a time through the second half of 2021 and all of 2022; in their words, “the old people haven’t come back yet.” Neither of us were sure if the elderly, the bread and butter of most movie theaters, would ever return—six months later, that looks wrong: Air’s April release coincided with the Biden administration formally ending the coronavirus state of emergency, and the all-consuming virus that ruled our lives for three years finally receded into the background. Old people have returned to movie theaters, along with many others, and revenues are roughly back to where they were in 2019: not great, but not terminal.
And now the WGA strike puts all of that into jeopardy. Bad timing? No such thing when thousands of artists in the entertainment industry can’t make a living doing the same thing they’ve been doing for decades. Anybody opposing the strike doesn’t know the details or is a CEO; just because they’re on a Hollywood picket line, and just because some might strike you as “annoying” or “obnoxious,” doesn’t make their plight any less dire than steelworkers or Amazon delivery drivers or IATSE, the crew union that narrowly avoided a strike last year. Writing a sitcom won’t give you black lung, ruin your back, or exhaust you to the point of driving off the road. But the laws have changed: when episode orders go down and rates remain the same, people can’t live.
Because movies take longer—to be made, promoted, released—the WGA strike won’t have an immediate effect on cinemas. Television is already effected, although I’m not sure anyone can say with a straight face that they miss Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, or Stephen Colbert. Unlike the 2007-08 WGA strike, which took place in the dead of winter into the spring, this one hit right at the beginning of the summer, when most television shows do the majority of their shooting. Even films already on the release calendar are going to be slightly snookered by the absence of promotional platforms: Oppenheimer and Barbie, the two biggest films of the year, both of which have been penciled in for July 21 for over a year, might not be able to hold premieres.
And all of this was flashing through my head as I sat in Theater 4 at the Charles on Saturday night watching Zachary Wigon’s new film Sanctuary. Written by Micah Bloomberg, this one is a “two-hander”—another awful expression—set entirely in a hotel suite with Christopher Abbott as the presumptive successor to his father’s media empire, and Margaret Qualley as his longtime dominatrix. Sanctuary begins with Abbott on the phone, making arrangements for his father’s funeral, when Qualley knocks on the door. She introduces herself as a lawyer, he lets her in, and they sit down and begin going through a generic set of questions. It’s all very pro forma until she asks, “How old were you when you lost your virginity?” Abbott is tripped up, almost weepy: “Why are you asking me this? This isn’t appropriate…” After a bit of back and forth, Abbott stops the whole thing and reminds Qualley that she isn’t following the script he provided for her. She checks her lines, and resumes dominating him.
Sanctuary feels like a tail-end film, one at the tail-end of coronavirus filmmaking and the eat-the-rich sub-genre spawned by Succession. This entire movie could’ve been an episode in the final season of Succession, with Kieran Culkin as Roman Roy in Abbott’s place. J. Smith-Cameron as Gerri never went as far in her games with her Roy boytoy, but if that relationship (or “situation,” whatever you want to call it) did progress without the accidental dick pic interruption, then it would look a lot like Sanctuary: maybe Gerri would’ve blackmailed Roman just as Qualley does to Abbott here, and who knows what kinds of games they could’ve gotten up to?
The only reason a movie this spartan works is because of the actors, and Abbott and Qualley are great here—it’s the best work either of them have done in years, and it’s the second major film role for Abbott post-Girls (he was good in Jerrod Carmichael’s On the Count of Three, but this is something else). I wasn’t a fan of either Claire Denis movie released last year, but I can’t blame Qualley: for me, Stars at Noon was totally inert.
Not here: this is easily Qualley’s strongest performance since her breakout four years ago in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s a showcase for Abbott and Qualley: Sanctuary would be nothing without them, and while I’m sure plenty critics and viewers complained that it “felt like a play,” I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. When you have good actors, all you need to do is give them space. Sanctuary would be just as powerful in a blackbox theater as the film version—although there are a few fancy (and goofy) camera moves, this isn’t Glengarry Glen Ross, with non-stop dolly shots and severe ‘Scope framing. Sanctuary is in anamorphic widescreen too, but the focus is on the performances, and thank God they’re good.
If you got sick of “coronavirus movies” in the last couple years, just wait until there are no movies—eight weeks in, with no negotiations in sight, the American entertainment industry is getting socked in the gut just as it was getting back up on its feet. Once again, the WGA are not the villains, nor SAG-AFTRA, who, defying all expectations, may actually go on strike, too. But It’s grim days yet still ahead.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith