Inside Review | The Concrete Jungle Penthouse

by Andrew Parker

Willem Dafoe gives a tremendous performance in Vasilis Katsoupis’ one-man-show survival thriller, Inside. It’s a simple film that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny very well, but as a metaphorical riff on the intersection between art, capitalism, and the conveniences of modern living, Inside does precisely what it needs to and offers up a nice bit of subtext in the process. It’s entertaining and exciting in the moment, and while the entirety of Inside won’t linger too long in the memory, Dafoe’s fully committed performance will.

Defoe plays Nemo, a master art thief who has literally parachuted onto the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper to get at the riches inside the penthouse. While a helicopter circles the skies above for his getaway, Nemo races around the penthouse to procure four paintings. The owner of the unit is away for a long time, and the security system is state of the art. Things go sideways in a hurry, the alarm goes off, and Nemo’s ride ditches him. Nemo silences the alarm, but that turns out to be the least of his problems. The penthouse appears to be built like a fortress that’s just as capable of keeping someone in as it is keeping others out. The heat has malfunctioned, the water has been turned off, there’s almost no food to be found, and Nemo has no means of contacting the outside world beyond his walkie-talkie with a dying battery.

Based on an idea by Greek director Katsoupis and written by Ben Hopkins, Inside offers a refreshing, modern riff on the survival thriller, but try not to look too closely into the particulars. Throughout Inside, it’s hard to shut one’s mind off and not ask questions about the particulars of Nemo’s situation and the penthouse itself. Plenty of times, one can ask “why doesn’t he try such and such” and never get a straight answer as to why that wouldn’t work. The capabilities and awareness of the building’s staff strains all sense of credibility, even if the penthouse is basically a soundproof tomb. There are plenty of aspects to the situation that don’t make a lick of logical sense, but all of them serve the narrative purpose of keeping Nemo in place long enough to sustain a feature length movie.

But the true devil at the heart of Inside won’t be found in the details, but rather in the margins. While one might be tempted to lump Katsoupis’ film in with any number of other pandemic parables from the past or coming in the near future, Inside works best as an examination of the ways modern convenience could be the downfall of us all. What happens if the structures put in place to insulate us from the dangers of the outside world work too well? What if all the the material goods that line your walls start to look gaudy in the light of tragedy and hardship? What good is all the expensive art, appliances, fishtanks, fountains, and potted plants in the world if one doesn’t have water, sustenance, or a literal pot to piss in? Inside presents a world that is both convenient and uninhabitable at the same time, a strong metaphor and microcosm for modern living and a scathing (sometimes laugh out loud funny) indictment of the leisure class that would seek to benefit most from such high frills accoutrements.

If one can buy more into what Inside is trying to say and Katsoupis’ stylish presentation rather than the specifics of the plotting, it becomes easier to revel in Dafoe’s tremendous performance. As Nemo grows increasingly desperate and starts grasping at straws, Dafoe’s physically demanding performance becomes all the more hypnotizing and humanizing; the character’s increasing difficulties turning the actor into a work of art that would fit right in amongst the decor. It’s a portrait of a person becoming a part of the scenery. Any film where there’s only a single performer on screen for most of the running time requires an actor of the highest order, and Dafoe certainly fills that requirement. With his unique face and body and an ability to play characters losing touch with reality that ranks up there with the best performers of his generation, Dafoe rises to everything the material presents him with and attacks it all with headfirst gusto.

While it is disappointing that Inside disappointingly goes out with a bit more of a narrative fizzle than a bang, it’s never boring thanks to Dafoe’s unwavering commitment and Katsoupis’ overall messaging. There are plenty of plot wrinkles that don’t adhere to any unifying sense of logic, and it’s all too obvious for those leaps to be taken as surrealism. In that respect, Inside is kind of sloppy, but when the subtext and Dafoe’s performance are placed at the forefront, it’s an overall success.

Inside opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, March 17, 2023.

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