‘Inside’ Review: Willem Dafoe Adds Another Tortured Soul to His Portrait Gallery in a Suffocating Intellectual Exercise

‘Inside’ Review: Willem Dafoe Adds Another Tortured Soul to His Portrait Gallery in a Suffocating Intellectual Exercise
Feb 2023

Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis' first dramatic feature is a high-concept thriller about a master art thief trapped in a luxury New York penthouse that turns on him.

There's more than enough blurring of the lines between reality and dark fantasy, not to mention any conventional grasp of temporality, to position Inside as a new entry in the Greek Weird Wave. But subtract the brutalist-chic design aesthetics and the meticulously curated art collection, both of which have major bearing on the unfolding psychological thriller, and you have an inverted take on familiar one-person survival dramas like Cast Away or All is Lost. How much you get out of the narrative feature debut of commercials director Vasilis Katsoupis will depend on your appetite for another of Willem Dafoe's heady plunges into a character's soul in torment.

class="admz" id="adm-inline-article-ad-1">

Related Stories

&'Golda&' Review: Helen Mirren Makes a Commanding Golda Meir in Square but Serviceable Biopic

&'Seneca -- On the Creation of Earthquakes&' Review: John Malkovich Travels Back to Nero&'s Rome in Misconceived Historical Fantasy

From Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ through Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Abel Ferrara's Pasolini to Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate, Dafoe throughout his long and celebrated career has shown an uncommon willingness to put himself through the emotional, mental and physical wringer.


font-family-accent lrv-u-font-weight-bold lrv-u-color-brand-primary lrv-u-font-size-16 lrv-u-display-block">The Bottom Line Gripping at first, then just distancing and draining.
<strong>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


But Inside might represent a new extreme, trapping the actor alone onscreen for the duration -- aside from one or two brief dream detours -- to wrestle with the technology of a mutinous luxury smart home and, most of all, with himself. That will make this March release from Focus a tough sell, especially since it feels less like a story than an agonized fever dream, or one of those endurance art installations, like Tilda Swinton snoozing in a glass box at MoMA.

Dafoe plays an art thief named Nemo who breaks into the sprawling Manhattan penthouse of an unidentified one-percenter with the specific task of removing some prized portraits by Egon Schiele, valued at a cool $3 million. But before he can slip away, the security system malfunctions and he's stuck there, abandoned by his accomplice on the outside. Turns out the apartment is designed to make escape just as difficult as forced entry.

In voiceover at the start of the film, Nemo recalls being asked as a child which three things would he save if his house was on fire. While his classmates at school dutifully listed family members, he boiled it down to an AC/DC CD, his cat and his sketchbooks. On subsequent reflection he discovered, "Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeps."


His involuntary confinement in a home he gradually destroys in futile escape attempts will challenge that belief as he comes to question the importance of art and its role in our existence. When the penthouse becomes a cage, its walls become his sketchbook as he gets lost deeper and deeper inside his own head, more and more detached from reality. "I'm sorry I destroyed it," he scrawls on an entrance wall in a message to the owner. "But maybe it needed to be destroyed. After all, there's no creation without destruction."

That's a pretty bleak summation to leave an audience with after almost two hours of grueling imprisonment set to a brooding ambient score. But Katsoupis and his screenwriter Ben Hopkins are not interested in rewarding our patience with revelations any more than they are in providing an unambiguous ending. This is a movie that aims to ponder big questions of physical and spiritual survival, of the resilience of the soul, the primacy of energy as it's steadily drained from the protagonist.

Inside is also, it has to be said, a bit of a masturbatory exercise, of the type that's irresistible to a brainy actor's actor like Dafoe. The full-tilt commitment of his performance as Nemo spirals into madness is aided by the imagination of Katsoupis and Hopkins, continually throwing new challenges at him as his confinement stretches on and it becomes clear that no one is coming to liberate or arrest him.

That includes the same kind of elemental hardships that beset the characters in outdoor survival stories as the water is shut off and the air-conditioning system goes haywire, cranking the temperature up over 100 degrees and then down to a teeth-chattering chill. And just as Tom Hanks had the volleyball Wilson for company in Cast Away, Nemo has a wounded pigeon grounded on the terrace just beyond the unbreakable glass doors.

Watching Nemo get creative with the limited food supplies (aquarium sushi!) or find a temporary fix for the lack of water has a certain fascination for a while. Even more so once he gives up on the vault-like front door and starts eyeing a skylight in the unusually high ceiling as a possible exit point. This prompts him to build a rickety tower out of furniture and art pieces, demolishing high-end design elements in ways that will cause decorators to weep.

But the movie's high concept becomes steadily more limiting -- eventually almost as exhausting for the audience as it is for Nemo. His imagined interactions with the building concierge, residents or especially a cleaner that he observes daily on the closed-circuit monitors do little to shake up the static nature of the thrill-deprived thriller.

Nor do his fantasy interludes or his windy pontifications about visual art, sparked by the striking collection of contemporary work on display throughout the penthouse, curated by Leonardo Bigazzi. Ultimately, those art pieces seem to both mirror and mock Nemo's psychological deterioration, just as the smart home technology has been doing.

Production designer Thorsten Sabel's apartment is a visual knockout, a deluxe serve of Architectural Digest porn that dazzles with its opulent austerity and then visibly hardens into a cold, unaccommodating citadel of capitalist privilege, in which the intruder must pay with his sanity.

The director's work can't be faulted for its rigorousness, and as a tightly packaged COVID construct, this is more inventive than most. But even the formidable Dafoe at his most intense ultimately can't stop Inside from succumbing to its own narrowness, devolving into a self-reflexive portrait of soul-sucking isolation.

You may be also interested in

Go to blog