‘Inside’ review: Movie fails as metaphor, succeeds as Willem Dafoe showcase

An art thief (Willem Dafoe) is trapped in the luxury apartment he’s robbing in “Inside.”

Focus Features

Willem Dafoe is a great actor, legendarily intense and committed to his roles.

If you need a reminder, “Inside” is the movie for you. It’s all Dafoe, all the time — basically a one-man show, with the exception of some brief dream sequences — and he is customarily all in on his performance.

The film itself, directed by Vasilis Katsoupis, is similarly intense but not as appealing; Without an actor like Dafoe at its center (and margins and everywhere else), it would be unwatchable torture. With him, it’s more like watchable torture, easier to admire than enjoy.



Focus Features presents a film directed by Vasilis Katsoupis and written by Ben Hopkins. Rated R (for language, some sexual content and nude images). Running time: 105 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

Dafoe plays Nemo, a thief dropped off by helicopter at a luxury New York penthouse apartment, stocked to the gills with museum-quality modern art. Not just any thief, Nemo graces us with a voiceover introduction where he recalls a teacher’s question when he was a child: If your house was burning down, what would you save?

He went with the cat, an AC/DC CD and his sketchbook.

“Cats die,” he says. “Music fades. But art is for keeps.”

But who gets to keep it? Whatever the case, Nemo is in walkie-talkie contact with “Number 3,” an unseen partner who relays codes and messages to help him navigate the apartment.

Nemo is briefly concerned when one of the pieces they’ve targeted isn’t where it should be. But he has bigger problems ahead. An exit code proves wonky and shuts down the apartment, locking Nemo in. (Number 3, not exactly a chapter entry in “Profiles in Courage,” bails immediately. “You’re on your own” is his inspiring sign-off.)

What’s more, the computer-controlled systems in the apartment crash. So there’s no water from the tap. And the temperature inside begins rising to Phoenix-in-summer levels. (Later it will plunge to frigid levels.)

What follows is Nemo’s attempt to survive inside well-appointed luxury, which suddenly has become as dangerous and forbidding as the middle of the desert (or, depending, Antarctica). The refrigerator still works but is barely stocked (and plays “Macarena” if you leave the door ajar too long).

There are a couple of fish tanks — perhaps you can guess where that is leading — as well as a small pool. There is a small amount of food, mostly snacks, like moldy bread and a tin of caviar, a combo no foodie saw coming. A watering system for the indoor plants proves useful.

Attempts to chop his way out of the ornate wooden front door do not work. Nor does trying to toss heavy artwork through the windows, which are unbreakable.

He watches the multi-feed security camera until he’s on a first-name basis with the maid who can’t hear his shouts. He hosts his own imaginary cooking show. And he begins to see art as utilitarian, not so much by choice as necessity.

Nemo also begins to create his own art. Some of his psychic adventures seem to suggest a descent into madness, but he remains committed to using the pricey furniture to build a tower to try to get to the skylight in the high ceiling, a possible means of escape.

Katsoupis, who is credited for the idea (Ben Hopkins wrote the script), doubtless wants to say something profound about the value of art here. About who should have it? About its value? About its meaning in a world in which its value is fuel or as a tool?

It’s muddled. But he inadvertently has made a statement about art anyway — the art of acting. By unleashing Dafoe’s talent on what essentially becomes a horror story of entrapment and escape, he allows the actor’s artistry to overwhelm the rest of his message. If that’s an accident, at least it’s a happy one.

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