There is something inherently compelling about films that revolve around a singular location and a single actor. Whether it’s 127 Hours or All Is Lost or Locke, it’s a concept that can be used to fit just about any genre. In Inside, it’s used to give audiences a unique take on the heist film.
At the centre of the story is Willem Dafoe’s art thief, Nemo (whose name we don’t actually learn until the end credits). In search of three valuable pieces, he has entered a high-tech apartment that functions more as an art gallery than a living space. When the tablet-controlled alarm system goes haywire and traps him inside, Nemo’s support team on the outside quickly abandons him. With a malfunctioning HVAC system and lack of food to contend with, the art thief enters into a fight for survival that will only be achieved through his own resourcefulness. Can he survive long enough to either escape or be rescued?
Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis, Inside is a sociopolitical critique of art. As we learn in a voiceover in the film’s opening moments, Nemo is not just an art thief but an art appreciator and artist. He values art above all else, including human life (on equal footing with his pet cat and a good AC/DC album). But, given the drive for survival, the art that adorns this apartment becomes nothing more than the raw materials they are made of.
Reduced to scraps and pieces of wood, fabric, and steel, these pricey pieces are rudimentary tools Nemo must shape into new and functioning works — just as the original artist did — as he is forced to start thinking outside the box. Even as he endures his imprisonment, Nemo is driven by his desire to create with an appreciation for artistry. Long after he escapes or even dies, his art will remain.
Dafoe, who never shares a scene here with another actor, is the driving force of the film. With a lesser talent, Inside would surely crumble long before its hour and forty-five minutes are up. With minimal dialogue, Dafoe uses his whole body to live and breathe the film — whether he is hunting for food and water or bonding with a pigeon trapped behind the apartment’s shatter-proof glass on the balcony. Utilizing close-ups, the director zeroes in on his lead as Nemo’s inevitable descent into madness begins. Inside would make a great arty double bill with Dafoe’s other recent performance as the artist Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate.
How much time passes in the apartment is unclear as day and night seemingly blending into one another. The audience becomes just as disoriented as Nemo does, catching only glimpses of workers on the apartment’s security camera feed. Writer Ben Hopkins mostly leaves it up to viewers to decide just how long Nemo has been there, though we are given brief hints via dwindling supplies and piles of feces that serve to mark the passage of time.
As much as there’s attention to detail and effort into thought-provoking concepts about art, Hopkins’ script seems to conveniently gloss over some practical plot points. Surely an apartment with such high-value works of art would have a security team dispatched whenever an alarm goes off. Or someone would be tasked with caring for the tanks of exotic fish with an owner away for an indeterminate length of time. While we’re at it, why would a pantry of dried pasta be kept under a lock and key? Sure, some of these issues could be explained away by a broken alarm system, but the rest often feel more like oversights than convenient excuses. We already know Nemo is a smart and creative individual, so some of his choices feel like they’re the result of a weak script rather than a dumb character move. And as strong as Dafoe and the concept of Inside is, some of the more thought-provoking ideas about art, legacy, and isolation become a bit muddled towards the end.
Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings in the latter part of the film, Inside makes for a worthwhile watch if only to witness Dafoe’s masterful performance.
Inside opens in cinemas on March 17.