Now streaming on:
“Inside” has an initial premise that's so intriguing you can imagine any number of gifted filmmakers making an absolute meal out of it. The problem is that Vasilis Katsoupis, the film’s director, is evidently not one of them. The result is a movie that never comes together into a satisfying whole, and which will leave most viewers afterward feeling as hungry for something of actual substance as the hapless protagonist whose misadventures they have just spent the previous 105 minutes watching.
That protagonist is Nemo (Willem Dafoe), an art thief. As the story begins, he has just been dropped off at a massive New York penthouse apartment by unseen handlers. After disabling the security alarm, Nemo quickly grabs nearly all of the Egon Schiele paintings he's there to take, but just as he is about to depart, the security system malfunctions and locks everything down. The handler tells Nemo he's on his own and then disappears. After trying and failing to break a window and cut through the ornate front door, Nemo finally realizes he is stuck.
That is bad, but as he soon discovers, things will get much worse. Although the apartment is filled with priceless works of art (the end credits list them like other films do with the songs on the soundtrack) and bric-a-brac, there's little in the place that suggests human beings actually reside there. The fridge is virtually empty (though it does helpfully play “Macarena” whenever the freezer is open, the plumbing is shut down, and the only sources of water are a pool, the automatic watering system for the indoor garden, and a couple of large fish tanks (and you can probably guess the fate of the fish that they contain). If that weren’t enough, the fritzing control system causes the temperature to vary, seemingly at random, between broiling highs and freezing lows.
Nemo realizes that he's in for the long haul. But that does not stop his determination to escape, primarily by jerry-rigging the apartment’s furnishings into a tower that he ascends in hopes of busting through the skylight high above. In between those intense and occasionally painful efforts, as the days seemingly blend into weeks, he staves off the pains of isolation by entertaining himself. He stages fake cooking shows (demonstrating how to make pasta without a working stove) and makes up stories involving the other building denizens he can see via security camera but who have no idea he is there. The effect is like what Matt Damon went through in “The Martian”—the difference being that it all takes place in a setting worth enough money to potentially fund a good part of a Mars mission all by itself.
Back to what I was saying about other filmmakers potentially making something out of the setup that Katsoupis and screenwriter Ben Hopkins have devised here. While watching "Inside" and finding it to not work, I found myself thinking of three distinctly different directors who could have done wonders with the material. For example, I can see Jerry Lewis transforming it into a potentially brilliant piece of sustained solo slapstick as he reduces the place to shambles while struggling to get free. (If you doubt this, check out the astonishing opening sequence to his final directorial effort, “Cracking Up,” in which he inadvertently destroys his psychiatrist’s waiting room through klutzy moves, a waxed floor, and a bag of M&M’s.) On the other hand, I can also see the story as a sort of existential arthouse (no pun intended) horror film from the likes of Michael Haneke—sort of what might result if he was inexplicably hired to direct the third “Escape Room” film. Finally, I would have loved to see this concept in the hands of the late great Larry Cohen, who was famous for films with audacious premises like this and could have properly navigated the moves into sociological commentary about the value, literal and metaphorical, of art.
Your mileage may vary regarding the filmmakers I have cited, but whatever you might say about them, they all bring particular points of view to their work that makes them distinct and intriguing. Katsoupis, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have anything of interest to say about his basic narrative or its subtext concerning the values people place on art. As a result, "Inside" becomes little more than an exercise in cruelty as we watch Nemo struggle to escape his apparent fate, and while some of the individual moments are darkly funny, they don’t really add up to much. It all concludes in a manner that I think is meant to be slightly symbolic (I kid—Ruben Östlund himself might find it too on the nose), but which is likely to leave most viewers feeling seriously underwhelmed.
Oddly enough, one of the best things about “Inside” is also one reason it doesn’t quite work, and that's Dafoe's performance. Don’t get me wrong—in what is essentially a one-man show, he's riveting as he navigates Nemo’s inner journey from despair to resignation to some kind of grace with a roller coaster's intensity. But this is the kind of wild, let-it-all-hang-out work we know going in that Dafoe is capable of pulling off, and as a result, his descent into savagery has a whiff of the familiar to it. It might have been more effective to cast a more famously laid-back actor and put them through the wringer found here. Cast someone like George Clooney in the role of Nemo, set it up like another slick “Ocean’s Eleven”-style romp, and then have him resort to licking the inside of an empty freezer for sustenance.
“Inside” is made with some evident degree of skill and craft (the apartment is a wonder of production design), but they're in service of a story nowhere near as profound or audacious as it believes itself to be. The film has its moments, and Dafoe certainly gives it his all, but there's a hollowness that ends up rendering the whole thing fairly forgettable—the cinematic equivalent of a piece of art you buy only because it goes well with the couch.
In theaters today.
Willem Dafoe as Nemo
Gene Bervoets as Owner
Josia Krug as Jack
Eliza Stuyck as Jasmine