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Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis’ first feature-length drama is a high-octane thriller about a master art thief trapped in a luxurious New York penthouse that turns against him.
There is more than enough blurring of the lines between reality and dark fantasy, not to mention any conventional understanding of temporality, to position Inside as a new entry in the Greek Weird Wave. But subtract the brutalist-chic design aesthetic and meticulously curated art collection, which have a huge influence on the development of the psychological thriller, and you’ve got an inverted take on one-on-one survival family dramas like Cast Away or All is Lost. What you get out of commercial director Vasilis Katsoupis’ first narrative feature will depend on your appetite for another of Willem Dafoe’s heady plunges into a character’s tormented soul.
From Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini and Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, Dafoe throughout his long and celebrated career has demonstrated an uncommon willingness to submit to stress emotional, mental and physical.
But Inside may represent a new extreme, trapping the actor alone on screen the whole time (aside from a brief dream detour or two) wrestling with the technology of a wayward luxury smart home and, more importantly, with itself same. That’s going to make this March release of Focus a tough sell, especially since it feels less like a story than a dying fever dream, or one of those resistance art installations, like Tilda Swinton dozing in a glass box at MoMA.
Dafoe plays an art thief named Nemo who breaks into an unidentified one percent’s sprawling Manhattan penthouse with the specific task of looting some prized $3 million worth of Egon Schiele portraits. But before he can slip away, the failsafe system fails and he is trapped there, left behind by his accomplice outside. Apparently, the apartment is designed to make escaping as difficult as breaking in.
In the voiceover at the beginning of the film, Nemo recalls being asked as a child what three things he would save if his house caught fire. Because his classmates at school dutifully listed family members, he narrowed it down to an AC/DC CD, his cat, and his sketchbooks. Reflecting further, he discovered, “Cats die, music fades, but art is forever.”
His involuntary confinement in a house that he gradually destroys in vain attempts to escape will challenge this belief when it comes to questioning the importance of art and its role in our existence. As the attic becomes a cage, its walls become his notebook as he gets more and more lost in his own head, further and further from reality. “Sorry, I destroyed it,” he writes on a wall in the entryway in a message to the owner. “But maybe it needed to be destroyed. After all, there is no creation without destruction.
This is a rather grim summary to leave the audience after almost two hours of grueling captivity with an eerie ambient soundtrack. But Katsoupis and his screenwriter Ben Hopkins are no more interested in rewarding our patience with revelations than in providing an unequivocal ending. This is a film that seeks to reflect on the great questions of physical and spiritual survival, of the soul’s resistance, of the primacy of energy constantly stolen from the protagonist.
Inside is also, it must be said, a bit of a masturbatory exercise, the kind that is irresistible to an actor as intelligent as Dafoe. The full engagement of his performance when Nemo goes berserk is aided by the imaginations of Katsoupis and Hopkins, who continually throw him new challenges as his confinement drags on and it becomes clear that no one will come to release or arrest him.
This includes the same kind of elementary hardships that plague characters in outdoor survival stories when the water goes out and the air conditioning system goes haywire, raising the temperature to over 100 degrees and then dropping to a chill that makes your teeth chatter. And just as Tom Hanks had Wilson’s volleyball for company in Cast Away, Nemo has an injured dove on the terrace, beyond the shatterproof glass doors.
Watching Nemo get creative with limited food supplies (aquarium sushi!) or find a temporary solution to water shortages retains some appeal for a while. Even more so once you give in to the vaulted front door and start eyeing an unusually high ceilinged skylight as a possible exit point. This prompts him to build a rickety tower out of furniture and artwork, tearing down high-end design elements in a way that will make decorators cry.
But the lofty concept of the film becomes more and more limiting, ultimately exhausting for audiences almost as much as it is for Nemo. His fictional interactions with the building’s caretaker, residents, or especially a cleaner who watches daily CCTV monitors do little to shake the static nature of the emotionless thriller.
Neither are his fantastic interludes or his breezy pontifications on visual art, sparked by the astonishing collection of contemporary works on display in the attic, curated by Leonardo Bigazzi. Ultimately, those artworks appear to mirror and mock Nemo’s psychological decline, just as smart home technology has.
Production designer Thorsten Sabel’s apartment is a visual knockout, a luxury shoot from Architectural Digest porn that dazzles with its opulent austerity, then visibly hardens into a cold, uncomfortable citadel of capitalist privilege, in which the intruder must pay with his sanity.
The director’s work cannot be faulted for its rigor, and being a tight COVID build, this one is more inventive than most. But even the formidable Dafoe at his most intense cannot keep Inside from succumbing to its own narrowness, becoming a self-reflective portrait of soul-sucking isolation.
Inside Movie Details
THE BOTTOM LINE
Gripping at first, then just distancing and draining.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Release date: Friday, March 17
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Eliza Stuyck, Gene Bervoets, Josia Krug
Director: Vasilis Katsoupis
Screenwriter: Ben Hopkins
Rated R, 1 hour 45 minutes
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