By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Willem Dafoe finds himself trapped in the ultimate escape room in Inside, a cerebral and suffocating psychothriller from director Vasilis Katsoupis in his feature directorial debut. Dafoe plays Nemo, an art thief who breaks into the penthouse home of a wealthy artist and collector. As Nemo tries to leave the penthouse with stolen art, the home’s security system malfunctions, locking Nemo inside.
Inside is equal parts one-man thriller and endurance test. Almost the entirety of the 105 minute runtime is dedicated to Dafoe’s character Nemo trying anything and everything he can to escape the impenetrable penthouse. Food is limited, water is even more limited, and the temperature fluctuates from oppressively hot to devastatingly cold. Screenwriter Ben Hopkins writes Nemo into a literal and figurative corner. Surrounded by nothing but abstract pieces of art, Nemo and, in turn, the audience are tasked with applying creative solution after creative solution to a seemingly impossible problem. The frustration that grows within Nemo as the hours turn into days and escape becomes less and less likely purposefully transcends to the audience, making for an experience that is exhausting, tormenting, and deeply immersive.
Willem Dafoe features in every moment of this tormenting and immersive exercise. Dafoe is largely known for his supporting efforts, but it’s refreshing to see him seize center stage in such a one-man thriller. It’s in large part due to Dafoe’s on-screen presence that Inside remains as captivating as it is. Director Katsoupis never provides insight into the innerworkings of Dafoe’s character’s psyche, instead opting to use the character as template for which the viewer can envision themselves as. In this sense, Dafoe isn’t likable, but also isn’t detestable either. Rooting for the character is inevitable, although the passion behind this support is lacking. In turn, Inside is desperately crying out for a level of emotional investment for its lead to accompany the film’s extreme intimacy.
A filmmaking endeavor that puzzles and captivates for its first two acts loses its way in its third and final act. As the pressure mounts and escape appears increasingly impossible for Nemo, the film becomes bogged down by Nemo’s abstract hallucinatory and delusional experiences. While it’s clear this turn toward the abstract is done in an attempt to convey the toll being trapped is having on Nemo, it becomes too testing of an audience’s patience. Relatedly, the abstract imagery and hallucinations that feature in the third act imply the possibility of a twist to the film’s rather straightforward narrative. This twist never comes though and Inside tapers off in unsatisfying fashion.
Inside excels, however, in its satire of contemporary art. In his desperation, Dafoe’s character Nemo uses piece after piece of art and other valuables in the penthouse as tools to escape and survive. For instance, Nemo uses a garden installation as a water resource, uses several pieces of art as a climbing structure to reach the roof, and even turns exotic tropical fish into sushi. There’s potential for some to find the film’s rather heavy-handed commentary on art loses its appeal due to how taxing the movie is on the viewer, but, for the most part, the commentary is effective.
Equal parts one-man thriller and purposefully exhausting psychological thriller, Inside is a compelling, cerebral film that bolsters an incredible leading performance from Willem Dafoe. Although the film goes awry with a more abstract third act, it works as a creative puzzle for the audience to solve alongside the main character and packs some interesting commentary on and satirization of contemporary art.