Moving Pictures
Sep 26, 2023, 05:55AM

Inside—A Psychological Horror Film That Critiques the Art World

It's a showcase for Willem Dafoe's unique talents.

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Imagine this scenario for a movie script: An art thief gets trapped for weeks in a New York City luxury penthouse—the billionaire owner's away in Kazakhstan—after the security system goes haywire as he's attempting to steal a number of Egon Schiele paintings. The place is built like a fortress—escape is impossible. The malfunction means that the temperature fluctuates, the electricity doesn't work, and the plumbing's down. He's trapped in a gilded cage with a mostly bare cupboard, an understocked refrigerator, and a non-functional toilet. The prisoner, Nemo, slowly loses his mind, and the camera will be trained on him and his usually tormented face for about 99 percent of this film—a one-man show—as he desperately seeks to both survive and escape. Which actor immediately comes to mind for this updated, urban Robinson Crusoe story?

Willem Dafoe would be on anyone's short list (Christian Bale, too), and he brings the goods with his performance on Inside, courtesy of Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis, that's just been released to Amazon Prime. Dafoe's track record as an actor testifies to his comfort with portrayals involving extremism. He takes parts more mainstream actors won't touch. Perhaps his role in The Lighthouse (2109), in which he's trapped on a tiny island with another man, prompted him to up the ante on isolationism with this film, in which there are no lobster dinners, no conversational partners.

Inside is a claustrophobic fever dream—it's Covid x 10, with zero human contact allowed. It's an art project that won't let you forget that it's an art project. There's the Schiele paintings on the wall, and the subtext, presented before any action's taken place, provided by Dafoe's yet-to-be-named character's voiceover: "When I was a kid, my teacher asked what are the three things I'd save from my house if it were on fire. I answered, my sketchbook, my AC/DC album, and my cat Groucho." The cat died, he lost the album, but held on to the sketchbook. As he puts it, "Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeps." The voiceover also includes the information that he didn't say, like most of his classmates did, that he'd save his parents or his sister.

Nemo's now a grownup artist (apparently not so successful) who didn't have a happy home life, so he withdrew into art. But he finds himself in the ironic position of being surrounded by great art, which should give him great satisfaction, except that he's become a caged animal facing dwindling resources. The wonderful paintings may feed his soul, but that's little consolation when the belly's empty.

And Nemo's belly soon gets empty, as the penthouse is built for show more than human habitation. Billionaires don't cook, so the pantry's not stocked, although there are some luxe snacks on hand. The first time Nemo opens the refrigerator, he hears, "Hi there, you are low on supplies." If he leaves the door open too long, "Hey Macarena" (there's sly humor in the choice of music) plays as a reminder to shut it. That song provides some comic relief to this solemn, austere film, especially when things get bad and Nemo sings along with the song in faux levity meant to mask his misery. In another light moment, Nemo pretends to narrate a cooking video with recipe involving soaking pasta in water for hours to soften it.

When the caviar and paté (chased down with vodka or a fine wine) runs out, the camera starts cutting to the elaborate fish tanks, foreshadowing an upcoming sashimi meal. Literal minds might wonder why whoever was feeding those fish didn't come by and alert the owner that something was amiss.

I've seen Inside described as a thriller, but there are few thrills in watching a gradual emotional and physical descent into desperation approximately mirroring the seven stages of grief. Perhaps "horror/art film" is the best description. It's obvious from the beginning that Katsoupis won't provide the easy satisfaction of an escape. A Castaway-style rescue at the end isn't in the cards, so the focus is on Nemo's physical and mental struggles. Dafoe stopped shaving—and all grooming—for the part, and he lost weight. Katsoupis continually hones in with closeups of the actor's gaunt, weathered face. That face, in the total absence of any dialogue or inner monologue, becomes the main story-telling device of Inside.

It's interesting to imagine how a more conventional star—say Tom Hanks or George Clooney—would fare in this role, but the gritty details of the ordeal that Katsoupis is intent on showcasing would be a deal-breaker. The director has Nemo squat over an Architecture Today-type bathtub he's had to turn into a toilet, and then has the camera linger (for so long it seems lovingly) in a close-up of the tub's contents. Then he cuts to the dog food Nemo's been forced to eat, after cracking fresh pepper on it, and it looks almost identical to what's in the tub.

Inside is a visual representation of a man with his head in a vice that's being tightened at an excruciatingly slow pace. It takes deftness to pull that concept off in a one-character, single-location film. The director doesn't always come through. For a self-conscious art film, the direction is surprisingly conventional, lacking any clever editing techniques that would provide viewers more insight into Nemo's disturbed state of mind. Add to that the lack of plot twists to stir interest, the pace gets plodding. Moreover, the cool restraint of the filmmaking isn't far enough removed from the detached aesthetic of the billionaire's art showcase for the director to fully make his point on the greed-fueled emptiness of the art world.

Nemo's a thief, but he's also an artist and art lover who wants to liberate art from the greedy elite. He ends up destroying the penthouse in his efforts to escape, leaving this explanation on the wall: "I'm sorry I had to destroy it, but maybe it had to be destroyed. After all, there's no creation without destruction."

That's the message behind all the details of human misery depicted in Inside. The status quo of the art world must be demolished so something better can replace it. One price that must be paid is the sacrifice of Nemo's life. In the final moments of the film, as the battered, starving prisoner's hopes run low, he sings, over and over, "I'm going to heaven on a hillside."


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