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'Inside' Almost Manages to Make Willem Dafoe Boring

By Petr Navovy | Film | April 7, 2023 |

By Petr Navovy | Film | April 7, 2023 |


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My reaction for first reading the synopsis for Inside was basically that Vince McMahon meme in which he goes through sequential stages of ever-increasing excitement:

‘It’s Willem Dafoe!’
‘He plays an art thief!’
‘He undertakes a solo heist set in a luxury penthouse flat!’
‘The heist goes wrong!’
‘He gets trapped in there by himself and has to use his wits and cunning to survive!’

There are those special actors that can make pretty much anything compelling. Point a camera at them and you’re guaranteed a good time. Willem Dafoe is unquestionably one of those performers, a person with magnificent natural features and physicality that are matched by the refined skill he brings to everything he stars in.

Inside, the debut feature from director Vasilis Katsoupis, belongs to that cohort of films that isolate an actor somewhere and lets us watch them do their thing. Sometimes these movies work excellently (Moon), sometimes well (Castaway, Locke), but they always run the risk of coming across as gimmicky, flirting with ego exercise, and unable to sustain their premise (Buried, 127 Hours). Unfortunately, despite choosing one of the best possible candidates for the format, Inside fails more than it succeeds. It is not a bad film per se, but if it wasn’t for the overwhelming magnetism of Dafoe, I’d likely have found my attention wandering and checking out altogether.

We open with a montage of the cold, cavernous space that Dafoe and the audience will soon be trapped in, all steel gray and hard angles, sterile; an exhibit in and of itself, rather than a place a human being could call home. Fitting, I suppose, as for Dafoe’s thief, Nemo, it’s about to become a particularly punishing prison. Nemo is working with accomplices we never see. They airlift him in and provide radio support—at least until things go pear shaped and the thief finds himself sealed inside this pharaoh’s tomb, abandoned and left to fend for himself.

To ruthlessly look for ‘logic’ and ‘plot holes’ is to rob yourself of joy and to misunderstand the whole point of fiction, yet nevertheless sometimes things do just jump out at you. When things first go wrong for Nemo, the penthouse’s alarm system goes berserk. He manages to shut it off eventually, but for a not inconsiderable amount of time, it’s the audiovisual equivalent of a mid-sized fireworks display being set off on the top floor of this building. Watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why haven’t security rushed in? The police? Don’t rich people have this stuff hooked up to all sorts of response algorithms?

The way out of that, of course, is to see the apartment as something existing outside of our normal reality, or perhaps starting here but detaching itself as events unfold. Mirroring Nemo’s mental and physical decline as he tries to survive in a place with no running water, scarce supplies, and a malfunctioning heating system, the penthouse serves as a sort of purgatory, or maybe hell itself. That’s fertile ground for a film to have a lot of fun in, but sadly Inside follows a mostly predictable and unimaginative path. The cinematography by Steve Annis (Color Out Of Space) is workmanlike, neither transporting us fully to this space (a recent contrast would be something like Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi, which, though only a mid-tier work from the director, filmed its confined space far more effectively), or into Nemo’s increasingly fractured mind.

I struggled to see what, if anything, Inside had to say. The screenplay by Ben Hopkins (The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz) is spare, but not in an evocative way. There is an opening monologue from Dafoe that sets the scene and provides a morsel of insight into his character, but then apart from his stress responses we don’t see much of anything else of his inner self. There doesn’t need to be an explicit backstory, in fact sometimes these things work much better without one, but it would have been a richer story had his reactions to his predicament at least hinted at something deeper. Similarly, the setting is ripe for subtle or overt social commentary, but we don’t really get any. Fundamentally the problems here can be boiled down to: Dafoe is interesting, but his character and the film? Mostly forgettable.