Inside is a one-man movie (more or less) in which Willem Dafoe gradually descends into stark-raving lunacy.

…Oh, you want more? Like that’s not enough to instantly sell you on the movie? Sure, fine, let’s take it from the top.

Dafoe plays Nemo, an aspiring artist turned cat burglar who breaks into the luxurious high-rise penthouse of an unnamed wealthy eccentric (played by Gene Bervoets) who’s away in Kazakhstan on business. Trouble is, an electrical malfunction causes the state-of-the-art security system to go into full lockdown, leaving Nemo trapped inside the soundproofed penthouse with impenetrable doors and windows. What’s worse, the water and communication lines are all cut off, food stores are extremely limited, and the thermostat is out of control. The power kinda works, but the smartfridge is obnoxious, the only clear TV channel is the security feed (more on that in a minute), and everything else electronic is on the fritz.

Naturally, a great deal of Nemo’s time and attention is focused on how to get food and water. Staying hydrated is especially crucial as the runaway thermostat sends the temperature sky-high. Oh, and let’s not forget the issue of how to handle excrement when the plumbing is shut off. His solutions are all compelling, but in different ways. While it’s always satisfying to see a character devise some clever means to a pressing crisis, some of Nemo’s solutions are disgusting and others are outright horrifying.

But of course we can’t forget the psychological toll of being stuck alone in a strange place. This is where the security footage comes in. (No, I don’t know why a tenant would have TV access to the building’s security camera feeds, but we’ll roll with it.) Nemo passes a great deal of time watching everyone on the cameras going about their day, sketching their faces and speculating on their lives. He becomes particularly attached to a pretty young housekeeper (played by Eliza Stuyck), whom he nicknames “Jasmine”. This naturally leads to sexual fantasies (mercifully not explicit) and you can guess where things go from there.

This brings us to a recurring theme, regarding whether it’s true that no man is an island. That’s honestly the least interesting theme in the movie, but it’s pretty standard material for a survival movie and I’m sure leaving it out altogether would’ve done more damage. But let’s get back to the better stuff.

Of course we can’t forget the rightful owners of this penthouse, who of course have left their pictures everywhere along with all the fine art Nemo came to steal. Nemo naturally starts hallucinating about them as well. Nemo even gets a dream sequence in which he converses with the owner and a mysterious woman, but it’s unclear as to whether the scene actually happened. Given Nemo’s declining mental state, he’s a terribly unreliable narrator and his prior relationship with the owner (if any) is left frustratingly unclear.

In many ways, this story is a conflict between Nemo and the owner. On the one hand, Nemo is a criminal caught in a predicament of his own making. On the other hand, the owner is coded as a self-absorbed asshole with more money than sense — it doesn’t take a lot to make someone like that unsympathetic, certainly not in this political climate. Thus there’s a legitimate argument to be made that they’re both victims, so we can watch guilt-free whether Nemo is suffering or wrecking the owner’s shit.

Not that I’m spoiling anything, but it might almost be a happy ending if the cops somehow came in and arrested Nemo. I mean, what are they gonna do, lock him up in prison?!

This brings me to the main thrust of the movie: Nemo destroying the penthouse. Nothing within reach is safe. If he can’t eat it, drink it, or shit in it, he’s defacing it to pass the time or tearing it apart for tools to effect his escape. In many ways, the condition of the apartment serves as a convenient visual symbol for Nemo’s own deteriorating sanity.

Indeed, as Nemo tears apart the penthouse to serve his own needs, he slowly begins to reshape the penthouse in his own image. He starts drawing artwork on the walls, assembling shrines and sculptures out of detritus. The big ending monologue ties all this together, speculating on the cycle of creation and destruction. Everything comes from somewhere else and everything is destined to eventually become something else (the Circle of Life and all that), so there can be no creation without destruction or vice versa.

Nemo even goes so far as to suggest that maybe the penthouse should’ve been destroyed. And remember, Nemo is coded as a blue-collar guy in an apartment loaded with tacky artwork, artificially “intelligent” appliances, and other luxuries more extravagant than useful. I don’t know if the filmmakers intended for this to be a statement of “eat the rich”, but it’s a fun way to read the movie nonetheless.

On a miscellaneous note, I’d be remiss not to mention the pigeon that gets trapped on the covered balcony outside. Nemo and the pigeon never directly interact (they’re separated by impenetrable windows, after all), but the pigeon dying and decaying in captivity works as a nicely implicit reminder of how this story could potentially go for Nemo.

Of course Willem Dafoe is on fire, with very little to distract from a performance well within his wheelhouse. Kudos are also due to the filmmakers, who skillfully use sound design and extreme close-up shots to put us in Nemo’s headspace. Alas, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Dafoe has already demonstrated his capacity for head-spinning madness on numerous occasions. (Antichrist and The Lighthouse come immediately to mind. His performances as Norman Osborn are a bit more on the campy side, but we can count those too.) And while I don’t agree with criticisms that it’s monotonous or overly torturous to sit through — no more than the premise of the film demands, in my opinion — the fact remains that it can be highly disturbing by design.

Inside doesn’t show much of anything we haven’t already seen from Willem Dafoe, but it’s not like he’s got anything left to prove at this stage in his career anyway. It’s a grotesque psychological thriller, but I can respect that in a survival movie. Especially a survival movie with a premise that puts a neat new spin on the genre, with additional commentary on the nature of art and the cycle of creation/destruction, and subtle tones of anti-capitalism in the bargain.

Overall, I’m fine with giving this one a recommendation. Check it out.


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