You didn’t think Willem Dafoe would star in a conventional escape room thriller, did you? Then again, “Inside” is barely an escape room thriller despite it being about an art thief trapped in the location of his latest heist. Greek filmmaker Vasilis Katsoupis’s elegant provocation may be closer to the kind of existential mood pieces that generations ago defined so much of European cinema, but it’s been given a modern gloss of design, tension, and star power more in keeping with the gripping tales of solitude that have found a mainstream audience (“Cast Away,” “Life of Pi,” “All Is Lost”).
Inevitably, because of its challenging nature, “Inside” and its methodical excavation of one man’s survival instincts in a place not assumed to require endurance –- a luxury penthouse in Manhattan — will likely only appeal to the arthouse crowd. Even among discerning moviegoers its more indulgent elements may occasionally grate.
But in Dafoe, an actor of feral unpredictability and hypnotic intelligence, Katsoupis and screenwriter Ben Hopkins have the ideal partner to walk the fine line between what’s relatable and what’s impossible to fathom. To call Dafoe’s solo turn a summing up of his career in film across decades — how easily he moves between Hollywood and the offbeat, bringing a little of one to the other and vice versa — seems not only appropriate, but intrinsic to the physical and spiritual magnetism he brings here.
We hear Nemo (Dafoe) first while Katsoupis unveils a series of images depicting the space where we’ll be for 100 minutes or so: a sleekly furnished, open-plan high-rise pad full of chicly displayed modern art, which in the light of dusk reveals striking shadows. In voiceover, Nemo recalls a what-if question posed to him in childhood, telling us that he’d save from a hypothetically burning home only his cat, an AC/DC album, and a sketchbook. But now it’s the sketchbook that matters, he realizes, since “art is for keeps.”
The sounds of a helicopter and walkie-talkie communication precede a jump-suited Nemo making his entrance, after which he quickly cases the apartment for the items he wants (two Egon Schiele paintings and a Lynn Chadwick bronze sculpture). When he tries to leave, however, the security system goes haywire, locking him in with enough noise to alert a city block.
But then nobody shows up — in person nor on the two-way — and as the silence settles in and the broken thermostat sends the temperature soaring days go by and Nemo realizes he’s in this pickle alone. Except for, as Katsoupis’s cutaways often reminds us, all that art, which separately and together become a curiously present collection of inanimate companions.
In much the way Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” used a horror framework to chart a solitary individual’s mental condition, Katsoupis takes our thirst for a no-way-out escape plan and digs into what survival looks like in isolated, brutalist opulence (and kudos to production designer Thorsten Sabel for so tastefully bleak a cavernous cage of wealth).
Nemo’s various subsistence hacks count as a satire of one-percent living: a security feed becomes episodic television, caviar becomes rationed fuel, an irrigated indoor garden a water source, a zen pool a toilet, and every conceivable piece of high-end furniture a building block for a possible way out.
But the art, too, much of it eerily suggestive, becomes repurposed as things fall apart. The more Nemo needs creativity and ingenuity to live, the more the various paintings, installations and sculptures turn into either a misplaced absurdity or a strange source of inspiration and connection, and we come to think of some of the pieces as prisoners, too.
Sometimes this psychological overlay is too forcefully handled – as if Katsoupis were not just curating this journey but insisting how to notice it. And yet still, towards the end, when Nemo starts making his own art, the vibe is akin to what “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” memorably conveyed with one mashed-potato mountain about the artistic impulse in a fragmented state.
In its crumbling rhythm and dream/nightmare states, evocatively captured by cinematographer Steven Annis, “Inside” certainly poses big questions about the relationship of art to existence. It’s Dafoe who has to embody them, however, and when you allow yourself to ponder who else could have handled the physicality, humor, weirdness and vulnerability of a character you only know through a protracted ordeal, you’re thankful it’s Dafoe – who played both Max Schreck and Vincent van Gogh to Oscar nods — as this movie’s soul docent.
As Katsoupis’s exhibitionist experiment teeters between prickly psychological suspense and yawing pretension, it’s always Dafoe — perhaps channeling the audacious immersion of his roots in Wooster Group theater — who mesmerizingly portrays this “Inside” job as if his life and art counted on it.