“Insider” review: Willem Dafoe is trapped in the fancy penthouse

Berlin: “Buried” meets “Velvet Buzzsaw” with a hand that only works because Dafoe does.

We won’t know the name of our main character until the last part of Vasilis Katsoupis’ “Inside” rolls around. This ‘Nemo’, perhaps chosen to conjure up an adventurous spirit, but this Nemo does not travel under the sea or to an island, this one is trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare and spends all together with the art lover-turned-thief in the world’s most sophisticated (and deadliest?) penthouse. There, he’s forced to use all his wits (and his priceless artwork) to survive the waking nightmare.

It’s a pretty cheeky twist on the survivor story – what if you get stuck withinno outside? – and this is reinforced by the inherent watchability of star Willem Dafoe, one of the few performers perfectly suited to this special feature. But that twist and that performance only goes so far, as “Inside” soon turns from smart questions to muddled answers and ends as strangely as possible for a film that starts with such promise.

Nemo tells us that “Art is for keeps” through an opening sound that later appears in a much different guise. Although we spend nearly two hours almost entirely in his solitary company, that’s about as much as we get to know about his worldview and philosophy of life. Nemo fancies himself an esthete, but he is also a master thief. As she sweeps through her chic NYC apartment looking for four Egon Schiele paintings, she barely stops to look at other works. He is a man on a mission.

But when Nemo enters the exit code into the handy security tablet, the system emits blaring alarms, flashing lights and a mechanical sound indicating a “system error”. A partner on the other end of the walkie-talkie immediately bails and is never heard from again.

The noise and lights are bad enough, but the real problems are just beginning: no gas or water, the HVAC system is blasting out deadly heat or freezing AC, and she’s trapped. What’s a guy to do?

Willem Dafoe plays Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE, from Focus Features.  Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features


Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Featu

With the limited information available, the audience will ruminate on small mistakes (just as Nemo obsesses over everything from a dying pigeon on the patio to licking the inside of the freezer because of condensation). Couldn’t someone as wealthy as the owner of the penthouse have a crack security team to respond to the alarm? Shouldn’t someone go there to feed these expensive exotic fish? Why is the chamber under lock and key? Why does Nemo give up on tablet repairs so quickly? Some of the answers can be chalked up to that confusing alarm system, but many of them seem to be the result of Ben Hopkins’ loose screenplays.

When Nemo tries to plan an escape, some of his ideas are wildly inventive. He makes a pair of glasses to protect his eyes, figures out how to make pasta without hot water. Other big swings (like how he’s just going to scream really loud and hope they find him?) seem more the result of bad scripting than a dumb character. Along the way, cinematographer Steve Annis finds true beauty in the most benign moments, thanks to close-ups, from the sweat dripping down Nemo’s neck to the thrilling shot from inside the cursed freezer as Nemo licks him dry.

Nemo eventually collapses—and who does as convincingly as Dafoe? – which allows for more flexibility in judging this messy (sorry) scenario. Long stretches go by without Nemo saying a word, though Hopkins finds a clever way to connect his protagonist to others as he tunes in to the only TV channel: a closed circuit station that broadcasts live video around the building.

Willem Dafoe plays Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE, from Focus Features.  Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features


Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Featu

As time goes on, things not only get more disgusting (the state of the penthouse, Nemo’s shrinking frame, the literal pile of crap in a bathtub that was used as a toilet) but miserable. Katsoupis and Hopkins use this to question the possibility of the ruined thief’s religious conversion, but this is far less interesting than the more blunt observations that unfold earlier.

For a film so concerned with art — expensive art, crazy art, serious art — “Inside” gives up on its most compelling questions too quickly. What good is this art besides the real need? By the time Nemo uses a priceless statue to open the door, his conversion seems obvious; once you buy another one and fold it into a tent, you’re done. It’s too dull, just like “Inside.” Real art asks questions, but doesn’t answer them as simply as possible.

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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