I've always been impressed with Willem Dafoe's broad range and versatility. Think about it -- he has played righteous heroes, complex antiheroes, and (probably more than anything else) ruthless villains. He has done big-budget superhero movies, Oscar-winning war films, sumptuous period dramas, quirky Wes Anderson comedies, and whatever he was doing in Robert Eggers' "The Lighthouse," a performance I loved in a movie I didn't. Now he has a one-man show in the gripping new psychological thriller "Inside."
With "Inside," the seasoned and routinely compelling Dafoe takes center stage in a high-concept genre confection from first-time feature film director Vasilis Katsoupis. Penned by Ben Hopkins, working from a story by Katsoupis, "Inside" is a movie that sits somewhere between a stark survival thriller and a twisted exercise of the mind. And it sees Dafoe doing something he is no stranger to -- running his character through a mental and emotional wringer.
While it may be tempting to narrow it down as little more than a pandemic-era parallel or a genre lover's cocktail, "Inside" has a lot more on its mind. It touches on isolation, anxiety, and the need for human connection. But at its core, the film explores the idea of art and its inseparable bond to the human will. It subtly (and occasionally not so subtly) poses thoughtful questions surrounding the purpose of art, keeping its answers vague enough for us to wrestle with.
Interestingly, the movie's themes aren't simply laid bare. It takes effort and plenty of observation to get what Katsoupis is going for. Clues are left like bread crumbs, scattered about and easy to miss if you aren't paying attention. That may sound like a lot of work, but it invigorates the movie and keeps it from being just another solo survival experience.
Katsoupis wastes no time cranking up his story. Dafoe plays Nemo, a name that's never revealed until the end credits. He is an art thief whom we first meet as he's breaking into a lavish ultra-modern Manhattan penthouse belonging to a mysterious (and insanely wealthy) collector who is away in Kazakhstan. Nemo is aided by a voice on his two-way radio who first walks him through deactivating the security system. From there he's told he has seven minutes to swipe a series of prized Egon Schiele paintings, most notably a self-portrait valued at a cool $3 million, and then make his escape.
Nemo nabs several expensive pieces but is surprised to find the self-portrait missing. With time running out, he is forced to cut and run. But suddenly the security system malfunctions, sealing him behind locked doors, reinforced walls, and panes of unbreakable glass. His handler promptly abandons him, leaving Nemo to fend for himself. At first he frantically looks for a way to break out before the cops arrive. But it quickly becomes evident that no one is coming, and he is indeed trapped, left to his own faculties.
For the next little bit Katsoupis homes in on Nemo's search for a way out of his posh impenetrable prison. He starts by chipping away at a gaudy ornate wooden door with his pocket knife. He attempts to bust out the giant windows overlooking the city. He tries to make a call but the phone is dead, and he can't get online because there's no internet service. It doesn't take long before the realization of his situation sets in.
From there, Nemo's ingenuity shifts away from escaping and toward survival. The dichotomy is almost surreal. There he sits in an ultra modern home surrounded by priceless works of art. In fact, you could say the penthouse itself is an art piece. But for Nemo it quickly becomes a hellish cell. Suddenly the heat turns on, sending temperatures climbing to over 100 degrees. Even worse, there's no running water, and the refrigerator and cabinets are mostly bare.
As days rapidly pass, everything becomes expendable in the interest of staying alive and holding onto his sanity. And that includes the art, whether it's using an expensive statuette to wedge a door open or busting a framed painting to use the wood and canvas. Yet even in Nemo's dire circumstances, the movie shows the deeper values of art. For instance, as the freedom of the New York City skyline sits beyond panes of unbreakable glass like a cruel tease, art proves to be a soothing balm. Whether Nemo is sketching on shreds of paper or creating his own mural, we see his inherent urge to create and express.
It feels like a disservice to say much more as "Inside" is all about submerging us into the experience of its central character. It may sound dark and dour, and frankly it kinda is. There are brief moments of levity (such as "Macarena" by Los Del Río playing whenever the refrigerator door is left open too long). But through Katsoupis' lens the feeling of confinement and being cut off from the outside world is palpable. And Dafoe's physical and psychological transformation makes it all the more harrowing. His character may be a tad too opaque, but he is fascinating nonetheless. Much like this reasonably demanding and slyly absorbing movie.
87 Cast: Willem Dafoe, Eliza Stuyck, Gene Bervoets, Josia Krug
Director: Vasilis Katsoupis
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes