‘Inside’ Review: Willem Dafoe Is Trapped in World’s Most Pretentious Penthouse

It's "Buried" meets "Velvet Buzzsaw" in a one-hander that only works because Dafoe does.
Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features
Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Featu

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. Focus Features releases the film in theaters on Friday, March 17.

We don’t learn the name of our protagonist until the final credits roll on Vasilis Katsoupis’ “Inside.” It’s “Nemo,” perhaps picked to conjure a spirit of adventure, but this Nemo isn’t traveling under the sea or to an island, this one is trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare, one spent entirely with the art-lover-turned-thief in the world’s most pretentious (and deadly?) penthouse. There, he is forced to use all his wits (and priceless works of art) to survive a waking nightmare.

It’s a natty-enough twist on the survivor story — what if you were stuck inside, not outside? — and one bolstered by the inherent watchability of star Willem Dafoe, one of the few performers absolutely up to the task of this particular feature. But that twist and this performance only go far, as “Inside” soon turns from clever questions to muddled answers, ending on the oddest possible note for a film that opened with such promise.

Nemo tells us “Art is for keeps” via an opening voiceover that will reappear later in a much different guise. Even as we spend nearly two hours almost entirely in his solitary company, this is about as much as we’ll learn about his worldview and life philosophy. Nemo fancies himself an aesthete, but he’s also a zippy thief. As he sweeps through the ritzy NYC apartment in search of four Egon Schiele paintings, he scarcely stops to look at other works. He’s a man on a mission.

But when Nemo enters the exit code into the handy-dandy security tablet, the system cues up blaring alarms, flashing lights, and a mechanical voice announcing a “system malfunction.” A partner on the other end of his walkie-talkie bails instantly, never to be heard from again.

The noise and the lights are bad enough, but the real problems are only starting: There’s no gas or water, the HVAC system is pushing out deadly heat or freezing AC, and he’s trapped. What’s a guy to do?

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features
“Inside”Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Featu

With the limited information on hand, audiences will fixate on small missteps (just as Nemo will become obsessed with everything from a dying pigeon on the terrace to licking the inside of the freezer for condensation). Wouldn’t someone as rich as the penthouse’s owner have a crack security team on hand to answer the alarm? Shouldn’t someone be swinging by to feed those pricey exotic fish? Why is the pantry under lock and key? Why does Nemo so quickly give up on repairing the tablet? Some of those answers can be chalked up to that glitchy alarm system, but many of them seem to be the product of loose scripting from Ben Hopkins.

When Nemo attempts to engineer an escape, some of his ideas are wildly inventive. He manufactures a pair of goggles to protect his eyes, figures out how to make pasta without hot water. Other big swings (like that he’ll just scream really loudly and hope to be found?) seem like the result of iffy scripting rather than a dumb character. Along the way, cinematographer Steve Annis finds true beauty in the most benign of moments, thanks to close-ups of everything from the sweat dripping down Nemo’s neck to a thrilling shot from inside that damn freezer as Nemo licks it dry.

Nemo eventually crumbles — and who crumbles as compellingly as Dafoe? — which allows more flexibility in judging this glitchy (sorry) screenplay. Long stretches go by without Nemo uttering a word, though Hopkins does find a smart way to get his main character to engage with others, as he fixates on the only TV channel: a closed-circuit station that shows live video feeds around the building.

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features
“Inside”Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Featu

As time passes, things don’t just get more disgusting (the state of the penthouse, Nemo’s shrinking frame, the literal pile of shit in a bathtub that’s come to be used a toilet), but more wretched. Katsoupis and Hopkins use that to interrogate the possibility of a religious conversion for the ruined thief, but that’s so much less interesting than the blunter observations that unfold earlier.

For a film so fixated on art — expensive art, crazy art, serious art — “Inside” abandons its most compelling queries too quickly. What good is any of this art in the face of real necessity? By the time Nemo uses a priceless statue to pry open a door, his conversion seems obvious; once he takes another and folds it up into a tent, it’s complete. It’s also far too blunt, just like “Inside.” Real art asks questions, it doesn’t answer them in the plainest possible terms.

Grade: C+

“Inside” premiered at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on Friday, March 17.

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