Film Review: “Inside” — The Art of Survival

By Steve Erickson

Inside‘s visceral demonstration of the alienating capacity of technology and the reduction of art to rich people’s toys may be a bit pat, but the film finds the space within these clichés to stage a compelling human drama.

Inside, directed by Vasilis Katsoupis. Opening March 16 at Kendall Square Cinema and select AMC Theaters.

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis’s Inside. Photo: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features

Inside pulls audiences in with the trappings of an American thriller before it turns into an art film. Set in Manhattan, with shots of the city’s skyline, it’s actually an entirely European production, made by Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis, on an enormous set replicating a luxury apartment. Neither the film nor its sole character, Nemo (Willem Dafoe), ever run out of space; he finds himself trapped in a penthouse where every room measures thousands of square feet.

Dropped in by helicopter, Nemo plans to steal the wealthy owner’s Egon Schiele paintings, part of a vast collection. (38 artworks by 25 artists are shown in the film; six were created specifically for it.) He soon loses radio contact with his cohorts and becomes trapped inside the cavernous apartment. The security system allows him to enter — but not to leave. He flips on the TV and watches fuzzy images of sports and porn, then taps into the building’s surveillance camera system. He gazes upon its other residents, unable to contact them. Exploring the refrigerator, he finds low-calorie egg whites. (If its door is left open for more than 20 seconds, the fridge automatically plays “Macarena” to irritate its owner back into closing it.) As the thief tries to figure out how to escape the apartment, its temperature controls put him through extremes of cold and heat. Running out of food and water, he samples the chlorinated pool before spitting in it. He soaks pasta for 24 hours to render it edible.

Katsoupis came up with the idea for Inside long before the Covid pandemic, but its isolated setting with a single actor will resonate with many people’s experiences during 2020. It even shares a surprising amount with Bo Burnham’s Netflix special of the same name, in which the singer/comedian restricted himself to one room of his house and filmed himself over the course of a year without a crew. By the time it was shot, Katsoupis’s Inside could be made under far more luxurious circumstances. Still, the movie describes a similar state of mind, where despair and creativity jostle. Burnham emerged from suicidal-inspired-creativity with a hugely successful show and album. Katsoupis’s Inside is more interested in finding possibilities within the process of physical decline.

The director shot the narrative in chronological order. Nemo’s grubbiness is not entirely the work of a makeup artist. As Inside was being made, Dafoe really did stop shaving and washing his hair and he lost weight during the shoot. In close-ups, Katsoupis grants lovingly detailed attention to his gaunt, lined face. In this sense, the film falls into a tradition of actorly masochism — other examples would be Tom Hanks’s performance in Cast Away and Christian Bale’s weight loss and gain — where real changes to a performer’s body are put forward as guarantees of the film’s authentic devotion to its subject. Once or twice, Inside may gross out some audience members with sights of physical degradation. The apartment’s toilet stops working, so a pile of Nemo’s feces builds up in the bathtub. Katsoupis cuts from there to grotesque close-ups of the similar-looking dog food eaten by Nemo.

The apartment in Inside looks more like a commercial gallery than a place anyone would want to live. No wonder its owner has gone away for so long. The lighting is harsh, full of neon tubes. (A light installation glows with the words “all the time that will come after this moment.”) The walls are painted a grim, institutional chromium blue. Katsoupis researched architectural design for a year before making Inside, and his work paid off. It might be possible to turn the space into an appealing photo shoot, but Inside brings out the dehumanizing aspects of brutalism.

Inside’s elements of pained sacrifice remind one that Dafoe played Jesus for Martin Scorsese. (And that Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds to play over-the-hill boxer Jake LaMotta in Scorsese’s Raging Bull.) Especially in its final third, the film hints at a religious longing. Nemo sings “I’m going to heaven on a hillside” to himself. His only possible chance of escape leads skyward. But it also suggests that this stay is his 40 days and nights in the desert. The film also references the literary archetype of Robinson Crusoe, or even J. G. Ballard’s revision of the theme of isolation amid plenty, Concrete Island.

As a Covid allegory, Inside takes an experience that was negative, even for the most privileged among us, and finds something positive in it. It treads a fine line between the abhorrent and the aesthetic. Nemo discovers a rebirth of his creativity among the work of far more famous artists. By necessity, he destroys some of the art to keep living, yet it is deeply meaningful to him. With the barest of means, reduced to a pencil and the apartment’s white walls, he scrawls a mural, centering on a giant image that resembles a tunnel with a series of rings and an eyeball. The image also includes eyes looking down on houses. Even as he’s imprisoned, Nemo finds the mental space to work free from commercial pressures, utilizing a rich man’s possessions.

A few times, Inside displays the strain of building a story around one actor. When Nemo talks to himself, at one point staging a mock cooking show, the comedy adds needed levity to the film, but it also suggests a desire to keep the audience from becoming bored. He experiences increasingly elaborate hallucinations (or flashbacks) that chronicle his life on the fringes of the gallery scene. Inside suggests the necessity that the current status quo of the art world be demolished for the sake of building something better, less dependent on the nihilist whims of the one percent’s one percent.

Inside’s visceral demonstration of the alienating capacity of technology and the reduction of art to rich people’s toys may be a bit pat, but the film finds the space within these clichés to stage a compelling human drama.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.

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