A film where Willem Dafoe is not only the star, but virtually the only character might strike one on the surface like a dream. Inside’s concept is simple: An art thief Nemo (Dafoe) takes part in a heist gone wrong, in which a collector’s luxury penthouse smart house system malfunctions, trapping the thief inside. Abandoned by his first contact, the faulty system shuts down or damages most of the crucial functions of the house, like plumbing and air circulation. The owner has left the country for an indeterminate amount of time. There is little food aside from piddling charcuterie, the windows are thick and can’t be shattered, the door is heavily fortified and no sound gets out, so the building’s cleaning woman cannot hear Nemo’s desperate cries for help on the other side. “Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeps,” ruminates Dafoe’s gravelly voice over the intro, before Nemo descends upon the art-filled domicile which may spell his doom.
Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis’ sophomore film follows his 2016 documentary My Friend Gus, a small and little-seen indie (it has only been logged 34 times on Letterboxd) that mostly played Greek-centric film festivals. Katsoupis jumped from television commercials, obscure music videos and a 62-minute micro-feature to a high-concept thriller distributed by Focus Features, starring one of our greatest working actors in independent cinema. Though it seems a bit of a perplexing leap, Katsoupis is not at all untalented. Inside is sleek, confidently directed and, at times, beautifully shot by DP Steve Annis (Color Out of Space). Katsoupis also brings out a careful, calculating performance from Dafoe reliant on minimal dialogue, generating a character whose persona must be formed through intimate physicality and a slow, progressive mental unraveling.
It is disappointing, then, that Inside falls largely flat in most other ways. With no palpable sense of tension or adequate interiority to Nemo (the screenplay penned by Ben Hopkins), and no innovative editing techniques to heighten the claustrophobic and creatively exciting single-location concept, the film mostly plods along with Nemo shifting into alternating psychological states as he copes with his situation and attempts to escape. At first, Nemo is frustrated but calm. It’s only an apartment, after all. Surely he can find a way out. But hacking away at the ornate wooden door only leads to a metal interior. There are no phones because, well, nobody has a landline anymore, and the thief certainly doesn’t have a tracking device-laden cellphone on him. It is seemingly ironic that a modern, technologically advanced home can double as a human cage.
But it’s also not ironic at all. Architecturally, the penthouse is less of a home and more of a brutalist prison which traps Nemo, a sterile and inhospitable monument to man’s greed, disregard for beauty, and desire to hoard art instead of share it, with greenery scattered about as if to mimic life unto that which is dead. Even the brief example of “sharing art,” an at-home gallery exhibition Nemo attends in a flashback at the very penthouse hosted by his victim, is clearly less an act of generosity than one of pride. We don’t gain much other access into Nemo’s inner psyche or background; the film refrains from almost any inner monologue narration, aside from the opening and closing sections, keeping our understanding of Nemo and his mental state strictly held to what we can see and hear physically. It’s a nice touch, and through the sparse flashback and light characterization, we can infer that he likely fancies himself a savior of art in his criminal actions; someone who, unlike the collector and owner of the penthouse, actually appreciates, understands and deserves it. To see these priceless works remain hidden to soothe one man’s ego must be heresy to Nemo.
Such a bottled film would allow ample room for filmmaking ingenuity, but Katsoupis prefers to play it safe. Inside‘s concept holds creative possibility, yes, but without much, if any, applied, it’s just a guy stuck in an apartment for 105 minutes, going through various stages of disbelief, acceptance, mania, determination and setback as days, weeks and months go by, and desperation becomes more of a necessity than a last resort. Nemo’s potential deliverance is held in the skylight, to which he crafts a tenuous stairway out of furniture and commits to hacking away at the concrete surrounding the pane of glass that could set him free. As Nemo works, he’s surrounded by his destruction: The ruin begat from his attempts to escape, his anger and his own undoing. He posits that perhaps the penthouse needed to be destroyed; destruction is a form of creation, after all. But the digital sleekness and restraint of Inside’s filmmaking mirrors the empty artlessness of the art-filled penthouse—an attempt to convey something meaningful that instead only acts as a reminder of what’s missing.
Director: Vasilis Katsoupis
Writer: Ben Hopkins
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Gene Bervoets, Eliza Stuyck
Release Date: March 17, 2023
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.