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‘Inside’ review: Willem Dafoe contends with the place of art while battling back claustrophobia

Director Vasilis Katsoupis’s concentrated thriller that ruminates of the value of art and asks a lot of it’s viewer in time.

Focus Features

The opening narration of Vasilis Katsoupis’s claustrophobic thriller Inside is a man speaking about his answer to the proverbial “if you’re house was on fire, what three items would you save” question. As a kid, he answered his cat, an AC/DC album, and a sketchbook. While the cat passed away and he gave the CD to someone else, he kept the sketchbooks – because, in Nemo’s (Willem Dafoe) words, “art is for keeps.” It’s a point that gets repeated at the conclusion of the film. Why is that? Inside looks to be an abstract and somewhat character study of what art is considered to be and who should own it.

Inside’s setting is an affluent, luxurious New York apartment where Nemo, an art thief, breaks in. He’s on a time-sensitive mission to take three specific paintings guided by a man on a walkie-talkie. Everything seems like it’s going according to plan until the security alarm goes off after an ill-advised code attempt. At that point, Nemo’s partner says he’s on his own (yeesh) and has to find his way out. One would think the police would be swarming the building, but all the doors go into lockdown mode.

But ok, Nemo is nailed down in a very well-off Penthouse suite. Everything should be fine, right? The malfunctioning tablet system that regulates temperature wildly swings from extremely hot to frigid cold. There is no running water, and the place's owner did not seem to stock up on food. It’s not like Nemo can call up an Uber Eats – he has no phone, and a massive front door is an impenetrable object to his exit.

Katsoupis and writer Ben Hopkins know Dafoe’s acting is their greatest strength in such a small story. Every spoken line, thought, and visual cue is from Nemo’s perspective. It wouldn’t be hard-pressed to say this film wouldn’t be as engaging. For part of the film, Nemo is just on a quest for survival. The apartment is big enough that he finds hidden nooks and crannies, either finding clothes or a discriminate amount of sustenance. When Nemo is not scraping the mold of crackers, filtering water from a small vegetation system, or trying to cook pasta without a stove, he’s drawing.

It’s a simple exercise that keeps the slitter of his sanity intact. Nemo also develops “relationships” with people he sees through a glitchy monitor of what’s happening around the building. But, like his sketches, the apartment becomes a bit of a living embodiment of a hermit MOMA, if you will. As the situation becomes direr, Nemo surrenders more of the mantle of a conceptual artist. A colossal fort he builds that might provide an eventual way out looks like something that could be the center of a Thursday night gallery. He makes portable goggles to protect himself and makes a huge drawing on the walls, doubling as a sanctuary for a spiritual experience.

We all experience the intoxicating nature of art through different experiences – that’s what makes it so great. Besides the story's immediacy and leading player, Katsoupis and Hopkins leave much to interpretation. Sure, there is a social-economical subject of what Inside is trying to say; however, art is shown to be a tool of human endurance. The suite becomes a living testament to the life and times of Nemo.

Defoe’s appearance becomes more emaciated and beckons a succession of lyrics repeatedly. Except for a brief hallucination, you’ll wonder what’s going on inside this character for him to reach this inner sanctum of nirvana. After all, it was Nemo who chose to be the thief, but does he deserve for the picture-perfect residence to close in like a cage? It’s an answer that is left for your own imagination to decipher.