Image via Focus Features
What is the state of our emptiness? What happens when the give-and-take of the human spirit with its many creations is disrupted? How culpable are we in this whole mess? These may not be the questions that immediately come to mind when presented with the prospect of Willem Dafoe going stir-crazy in a New York penthouse, yet they represent a mere fraction of the brain buffet that Inside seeks to serve.
Making his directorial debut with a script from Ben Hopkins (The Market: A Tale of Trade), Vasilis Katsoupis has picked quite the project to start with, and while the film’s towering wealth of ideas can be tricky to digest cohesively, the necessary allure of said ideas coupled with an intriguing solo performance from Dafoe makes Inside a starkly worthy watch.
When it comes to casting, there are few better industry practices than to never bet against Dafoe, whose turn here as the art thief Nemo reinforces such a notion in a way you may not expect given the premise. Indeed, the promise of Nemo getting trapped in an unforgiving penthouse may prepare you for a performance akin to The Lighthouse, but Dafoe quite expertly navigates and shifts gears exactly the way the film needs him to, whether that means bringing one of Nemo’s surprisingly sparse outbursts to life, delving into quieter but equally desperate expressions, or becoming a rebellious extension of the penthouse itself.
Not a moment of time is wasted in the setup; right away, we’re introduced to the New York penthouse that will quickly become Nemo’s personal hell, and before he even sets foot inside, we couldn’t feel more sorry for him. The atmosphere alone is rife with a titanic soullessness, marked by a wealth of art pieces whose collective stench of vanity adds an air of redeemability to the whole space; whether this particular ethos remains by the end of the film is up to individual interpretation.
Once the psychologically disarming alarms get disabled by Nemo, Inside begins its a slow burn of an escape/survival story that comes packed to the brim with questions for the audience to chew on; a stark contrast to the scarcity of drinkable water that leads to the humiliating lengths he has to go through to stay hydrated.
It’s not humiliating for Nemo, though; it’s humiliating for the penthouse and everything that it represents, and that’s where the thematic flower of Inside begins to bloom. As if the sight of the penthouse’s interior wasn’t enough to telegraph the misery that’s no doubt familiar to the penthouse’s owner, the uncanny family photo of him, his dog, and their daughter, all of whom are a couple of arms’ length apart, screams the empty state of this particular heart.
And how does a person with this much wealth, wealth that can single-handedly disconnect someone from the rest of reality, do to try and supplement this emptiness? By packing their living space full of art. Art is the boon of the human spirit, and should thus be a one-way ticket to an enriched life.
This is assuming that this art was acquired for the purpose of enrichment, which in turn assumes that the owner of this penthouse, much like the wealthy elite as a whole, is at all interested in addressing the hollow state of their own humanity. As one might guess, this isn’t the case; what may have once been the subjects of many a patron’s wonder in a museum is instead collecting dust in an empty penthouse, stripped of the soul that went into them as they now serve as nothing more than status indicators.
Seeing art reduced to this is nothing short of disheartening, especially for someone like Nemo, who we learn at the outset has an unquenchable passion for art, not by way of the fact that he’s risking his life to steal it, but because of his lifelong relationship with his sketchbook. There’s a rather morbid sentiment behind that connection, to be sure, but his sketchbook becomes as essential to his survival as the caviar-based meals he manages to scrounge together, offering his mind a desperately-needed place to wander as he gerrymanders an escape plan.
It’s the logistics of his escape that spearhead Inside‘s most essential theme; of the place of art in our current lives. Throughout, Dafoe lays waste to the penthouse, destroying furniture and sculpture alike as he constructs a towering, crude structure in the middle of one of the rooms. It’s an awfully ugly end result, but unlike the many art pieces that now only amount to surface-level eye candy, this sculpture is designed with purpose in mind. That purpose is to allow Nemo to reach the skylight that will serve as his path to freedom and salvation, as well as further symbolize what art is capable of when it synergizes with the inspiring power of a creative human soul, which Nemo unabashedly harbors.
That’s only scratching the surface of where Inside dares you to cast your mind to. One of the first and most obvious truths about art is its inseparability from the notion of escapism while simultaneously reflecting (and in some cases, shaping) that very reality we wish to take a break from. But what happens when art exploits that desire for escapism rather than supplementing it, and how can someone get to a point where they even begin to accept such exploitation? How is this reflected in their interactions with reality, specifically in the form of human connection? Are they even capable of engaging with this reality in the first place, and if not, what uncanny substitute takes its place?
Indeed, the ways in which one can read Inside quickly reach insurmountable levels, and perhaps that adds a touch of bloated discordance to the viewing experience. With so many threads for audiences to pull and tie together, some may question if the film, in trying to say too much, ends on an ultimately incohesive note, and, frankly, that’s as valid a reading as any.
Nevertheless, Inside is rich with dissection potential, and though it’s dizzying at times, its value as a commentary on art and humanity is far too intriguing and important to turn one’s nose down at. A few years from now, we hope that Katsoupis looks back on his freshman effort with all the pride in the world.
Though it’s no easy task to connect and absorb everything it throws at you, ‘Inside’ is a captivating thematic feast anchored by the ever-masterful Willem Dafoe.
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