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Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis' Inside.Wolfgang Ennenbach/Focus Features

Inside

Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis

Written by Ben Hopkins and Vasilis Katsoupis

Starring Willem Dafoe

Classification 14A; 105 minutes

Opens in theatres March 10

If you have to spend 105 minutes watching a movie in which one character slowly goes mad, you could do a lot worse for company than Willem Dafoe. The wiry, consistently surprising actor can project equal parts vulnerability and menace, his Cheshire cat grin stretching sympathies and allegiances. Which is both good and bad news for the new psychological thriller Inside: Dafoe is captivating as always, but not even his slinking, slippery presence can save the film from turning into a rather torturous endurance test.

It is unclear whether Inside was conceived as a COVID 19-era stunt by director and co-writer Vasilis Katsoupis, though the film’s conceit certainly fits the few-people-few-sets-few-locations requirements of the masks-on period. Taking place entirely within the confines of a brutally sleek and dangerously high-tech New York penthouse, Inside follows Dafoe’s art-thief Nemo as he is parachuted into the space with the goal of swiping a handful of artworks. But very quickly, the home’s security system malfunctions, turning the space into an inescapable panic room with only one occupant: Nemo.

There is no running water, the fridge is nearly empty, the phone lines are cut (yet the television still works?), and the doors and windows are impenetrable. With the home’s ultra-wealthy occupant – a starchitect who has amassed such a vast collection of modern art that he has built a cavernous video-art installation room fit for the MoMA – out of town for what appears to be months, it looks like Nemo is trapped for the long haul. Can our anti-hero utilize his criminal skills and wits to escape? And what should we make of a crook who seems to be a talented artist in his own right, someone who, as his voiceover narration tells us early on, would sacrifice his entire family in a fire if it meant that he could save his precious sketchbook?

Unfortunately, the answers that Katsoupis provides are unsurprising when they aren’t deadening. Nemo tries to cry for help to the building’s cleaning staff, sets off the smoke alarm to alert the building’s security officers (seriously, no one in the skyscraper would detect such a blaring malfunction?), and climbs high to the apartment’s ceiling in search of a vent to climb into. Each attempt at escape sends Nemo (whose name we don’t learn until the end credits appear) deeper into a downward spiral – giving Dafoe a nice opportunity to cackle and bug his eyes out, but neglecting to background his deep-end performance with anything that is thematically interesting.

And for a film whose entire story is predicated on an appreciation and coverture of high art – ambitious, experimental, and even pretentious art – there is precious little originality of vision on display here. The artworks that surround Nemo are glanced at and bypassed but eventually reduced to window dressing, with barely a moment of appreciation, contemplation or dissection. Another, bolder version of this film might find room to balance its psychological thrills with some sort of aesthetic philosophy. But ultimately Inside is all surface, no substance, complete with a cop-out ending ripe for defacement.

Best of luck to Dafoe on escaping to another, better project.

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