There’s no denying that Willem Dafoe is one of the best to ever do it. Despite having one of the most recognizable voices in human history, coupled with a physicality that can only be described as Jesus Lizard, he remains one of the most transformative performers on the planet. He can play menacing as well as he can play kind, a hero just as well as a villain. He can be deadly serious just as easily as he can be supremely silly. He can be imposing and pathetic, often at the same time. When we look back at his wildly diverse filmography it becomes clear that there is pretty much no mode he can’t master. Watching his latest effort, a unique post-heist thriller, it becomes clear where a lot of his chameleonic abilities stem from: Willem Dafoe is a intensely physical performer.
With Inside, he is called upon to exhibit the entire gamut of his skills, and short of a few indirect interactions with a scant supporting cast, he does it all by himself.
Here Dafoe plays Nemo, a professional thief on a mission to steal a stack of artwork from a well-secured penthouse home. The film opens as he breaks into the home under the instruction of a partner who we meet only via a walkie-talkie. Nemo only has a few minutes to get in, grab what he needs, and get out. Unfortunately, the one artwork he (and presumably his employers) seeks is nowhere to be found. He is given the instruction to take whatever else is available and get out, but before he can, the penthouse locks itself down (it’s the ultimate smart home, albeit a malfunctioning one), trapping Nemo inside with nothing but his wits. It soon becomes clear that law enforcement has not been notified, and the owner, who only just recently left town and likely owns ten homes just like this one, has no reason to be home anytime soon.
It also becomes clear that the homeowner probably gets takeout a lot — there’s not much by way of food.
What follows is a sort of “trapped on a desert island” movie, only the island is in the middle of a big city — a big city which might as well be an ocean away.
At just under two hours, Inside is the type of film which, given a less compelling central performance, could border on repetitive and pointless. We get it, he’s trapped. But what makes it so dang entertaining is Dafoe himself. As he interacts with the sometimes comical machinations of his prison (the fridge blasts Macarena when left open for too long), we can see his frustration give way to amusement. When he discovers a small amount of caviar to snack on, we see him, in some small way, doing his best to enjoy the high life. When the toilet fills up (did I mention the water isn’t running?) we see a defeated Nemo relieving his bowels into an increasingly full bathtub. His MacGuyver-esque rigs are a sort of brain candy for the viewer, as there are few things more exciting than watching the process of atypical problem solving, and as he tries and tries again to mount an escape, it’s the aforementioned physicality of the actor that takes us on his journey from inspiration to defeat to desperation to inspiration on a repeated loop. One would think that there would be some sort of obvious escape for Nemo to make (I know more than a few viewers who will try to outsmart the movie), but the concept is airtight. There’s really no way out of this place without some serious jury-rigging.
A theme emerges as Nemo’s cleanliness and sanity dwindle. Namely that the living of a high-class, high money, spotless lifestyle is simply incompatible with the needs of a functioning human being. We humans are dirty animals with dirty needs, and to live in insulation from such truths requires upkeep. Such upkeep is likely invisible to the owner of Nemo’s prison, but it’s this upkeep, and only this upkeep, that keeps the malfunctioning home from being a prison to its proper owner. It’s a home that anyone would dream of having, but that Nemo would do anything to escape. Like the artworks that our protagonist meant to steal, it is only perspective that keeps them from being just some paint on a canvas.
Inside is very much a showcase for the talents of Dafoe, but also serves as a strong calling card for director Vasilis Katsoupis, who has conceived a life-sized, potentially unsolvable puzzle as a setting for his film, and then shot it in such a way to capture the majesty of high-priced real estate right alongside the antiseptic nature often inherent to its design. This dichotomy matches the one on display in the script (written by Ben Hopkins, “based on an idea by” Katsoupis), in which very little is said or done, but a rich story is created nonetheless.
Inside is a hard film to categorize overall, and despite borrowing from a multitude of influences and utilizing a pretty simple plot description, it’s a wholly unique filmgoing experience, leading to an unforgettable final sequence that crystallizes the preceding picture into something different entirely. It’s a fitting, bold resolution that, like the best art of any medium, will enchant some just as much as it frustrates others. I can’t think of a higher praise to offer.
Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis
Written by Ben Hopkins, Vasilis Katsoupis
Starring Willem Dafoe, Gene Bervoets, Eliza Stuyck, Andrew Blumenthal
Rated R, 105 minutes