“Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeps,” says Willem Dafoe’s art thief, Nemo, in the opening moments of Vasilis Katsoupis’s Inside. A single-location survival film that doubles as a meditation on the value, meaning, and pervasiveness of art. In opening with such a statement, it’s not hard to envision the film as a pretentious, on-the-nose treatise— and in many ways it is. But that doesn’t stop it from being a sturdy look at how intertwined human existence is with the act of artmaking and how, in many ways, is what makes us human in the first place.
In using the structure of an intense survival film, Katsoupis takes viewers on a visceral journey down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, slowly inching past each tier until only the most basic of needs take precedence, still finding skillful ways to assert artistic creation as one of those most fundamental human needs. As audiences suffer along with Dafoe’s beleaguered, postlapsarian figure they too begin to realize that art is not only our connection to the sublime but a key to immortality itself.
Dafoe’s Nemo (whose name is a clear reference to Point Nemo, the most isolated location on the planet) enters a collector’s swanky penthouse in search of specific, unfathomably valuable works of art. Yet, his escape is stymied by the apartment’s insanely sophisticated security system, which malfunctions. Locking him in a blistering and then freezing environment with nothing but eye-popping, strange, and even unnerving works to keep him company. The art he so desperately seeks to covet now holds no worth for him (or does it?). Forced to survive on his wits, he scrounges for food and supplies to escape his opulent prison. Which slowly unearths itself as a bastion for artistic, existential revelation.
Ominous immobile wides and creeping dollies pervade the experience, establishing an all-consuming locale that bears down on both Nemo and the audience. A cold, eerie palpability underpins each frame, enveloping the senses with a piercing sense of dread and hopelessness—two emotions that have inspired artistic creation since the dawn of time. Each fixating close-up of Nemo’s short-drawn breathes, beads of sweat, and looks of despair intensify the film’s cold, voyeuristic glimpse into the unraveling of a man into his most primal form.
The film’s visual and sonic design makes the most of its isolated location, with Katsoupis and director of photography, Steve Annis, breathing life into this seemingly stagnant prison with inventive, purposeful angles and compositions. Resting on rippling puddles, faint slivers of sunlight, and scattered crumbs to cement an austere yet beautiful liminal space — a purgatory that wistfully embodies Nemo’s internal struggle to remain human.
This visual bravura is given immense force by Willem Dafoe’s multifaceted, animalistic performance, whose captivating presence is vital to the film’s ultimate thematic resonance. His iconic, weathered visage singlehandedly carries the narrative, serving as the connective tissue between each narrative beat and creative choice— good or bad. Dafoe’s near-wordless, battered turn reaches extreme levels of vulnerability, relishing Nemo’s fleeting visions of hope and growing primeval desires as he methodically transforms into a shadow of his refined self.
In crafting prehistoric-like drawings, Nemo taps into the psyche of his primordial ancestors, attempting to call out to the heavens in hopes of understanding the brutish nature of the world he inhabits. Dafoe’s riveting turn cements a perverse symbiotic relationship with the brutalist production design. The shapeshifting penthouse, awash with seasonal features that mimic the worst elemental conditions, pushes Nemo towards greater oddity, where his only solace is found in the transient appearances of a cleaning lady and a fridge that plays “Macarena” when it’s left open too long.
The suite’s overwhelming truculence inspires the creation of sculptures that soon transcend their functionality as escape tools to become allegorical monuments to the celestial power of art— as instruments used to communicate with and ultimately ascend to the plane of the almighty. The only medium with which to transcend the mortal coil.
Yet, these powerful, even inspirational ideas are communicated with the least bit of subtlety and nuance. From its opening moments to its last, Inside makes it abundantly clear what it’s about, and then continues to say the same thing, with little variation. With its descent into depravity, and then revelation, adding few contours to the base idea. Ben Hopkin’s script goes exactly where one would expect it to, with Dafoe’s bracing performance and Katsoupis’s stellar direction adding much-needed flavour. But the duo’s dynamism isn’t enough to quell the film’s repetitive edge, overstaying its welcome well before its underwhelming conclusion—which caps off its pretension with an apt Radiohead sting.
Nonetheless, Inside still manages to enthrall for the most part, leaning on stellar visuals and a virtuosic Willem Dafoe to make this descent into a decadent hell well worth the trip.
– Prabhjot Bains