Inside: this Ballardian high-concept experiment is an intriguing anti-caper

Putting Willem Dafoe through his paces as an art thief who gets trapped in a luxury high-rise apartment in Manhattan for much longer than he’d bargained for, this existential gem has dark satirical undertones.

7 March 2023

By Nicolas Rapold

Willem Dafoe as Nemo in Inside (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

A thief for hire turns into Robinson Crusoe in Manhattan in Vasilis Katsoupis’s audacious debut feature, Inside, starring Willem Dafoe in essentially a one-man show. When Nemo (Dafoe) gets locked alone inside a super-high-rise apartment, he’s abandoned by his team, and – in a surprisingly absorbing meld of J.G. Ballard and Hollywood screenplay conceit – he fends for himself, imprisoned with the art he would have stolen and subsisting on leftover tins and scraps.

The art-crammed apartment, which has a grand staircase and sprinklered garden, projects luxurious monumentality but, like many such residences, suggests ancient Egyptian entombment. The film’s concept hinges on Dafoe’s primal, almost primate-like, presence and physicality. Poking about the house (a set, courtesy of production designer Thorsten Sabel), he attempts all avenues of escape, flouted by a security system that keeps doors locked and apparently bars communication with the outside world. (He traveled light for the heist, sans cellphone.) Scrounging for food and water gives way to a struggle to stay sane as the weeks go by – prime material for Dafoe’s mix of mystical and methodical intensity. William Blake gets quoted.

Katsoupis, who conceived the story, and his screenwriter, Ben Hopkins, soon allow the film to come unmoored from prison-breakout-style plotting, and the narrative freedom that ensues may not satisfy all viewers. But the images speak for themselves: Nemo’s predicament in the apartment constitutes a vivid portrait of wasted wealth and its uselessness to the rest of humanity (plus a swipe, perhaps, at all the real estate snapped up in New York that’s left barely inhabited). The setting also has a post-apocalyptic air, recalling scenes in derelict skyscrapers on dystopian TV shows in the wake of some cataclysmic event. Katsoupis is Greek, and it’s easy to imagine the film as a severe continental take on American thrillers: what if there’s a heist, but nothing happens and the thief cannot leave?

Ultimately what we’re looking at, always, is Dafoe, who’s unusually exposed here, thanks partly to a first-time feature director giving a long leash to a self-propelled star. It’s tempting to view the role as a return to Dafoe’s experimental theatre roots (as a co-founder of New York’s Wooster Group), and the sinewy actor, though as deliberate in his rhythms as ever, feels wonderfully unself-conscious on screen. His performance becomes body art, as compelling as the big-ticket items around him, which include Egon Schiele portraits, work by Maurizio Cattelan and Francesco Clemente, one of Petrit Halilaj’s ‘Moth Costumes’, and photography by Joanna Piotrowska. In Dafoe’s hands (and face, and ribcage), it’s a curiously committed study in life as heroic decay.

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