Between the fishes in the aquarium and the pigeon with a broken wing on the patio, there’s plenty of on-the-nose symbolism surrounding Willem Dafoe’s character’s situation within Inside, a film that never lacks for imagery, but seldom brings it above the surface.
“Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeps,” Dafoe narrates as he prepares to perform a high-stakes burglary within a luxurious Manhattan penthouse. The owner appears to be an uber-rich art collector, with several of his prized pieces fetching a high asking price on the black market. The initial snatch-and-grab goes off without a hitch, that is until Dafoe’s hacker accomplice mistakenly trips the alarm at the last minute. The apartment shuts down into defense mode, trapping Dafoe into a gilded cage filled with bountiful treasures, but no way to get them out.
The resourceful thief must rely on his wits and resourcefulness to endure the isolation, as there’s no way to tell when he might be able to get out. In a cruel twist of fate, the apartment is filled with more paintings than food and running water, turning this once lavish paradise into a barren wasteland.
With next to no other in-person cast members and taking place on entirely one set, Inside may as well be confused as a member of the pandemic-era club of tiny movies that were able to be filmed while abiding by the strict safety protocols. Such members include Sam Levinson’s misbegotten Malcolm & Marie, the James McAvoy & Sharon Horgan-starring Together, and Judd Apatow’s “I shed two tears every time I mention it,” The Bubble. Luckily, Inside is no nowhere near as infuriating or as limited as those films, but it may not be all that more memorable.
Director/co-writer Vasilis Katsoupis, marking his narrative feature debut, displays a knack for crispy imagery. The sharp edges of the high-end furniture and décor give off the vibe of a cold prison, with the thief’s hierarchy of needs being changed by the day. The television has a CCTV feed, with one of the cameras being pointed at a cleaning lady eating her sandwich during her lunch break. The thief looks with lust toward the sandwich, with all the high-priced surrounding him worth nothing in comparison.
Eventually, Inside becomes a game of Chekhov’s Symbol, as every perfectly framed image and use of color is required to profoundly mean something. It would have made for an interesting puzzle if the pieces weren’t so easy to put together and the ending picture was anywhere close to being worth more than the sum of its parts.
Dafoe never lets the act of putting those pieces together seem dull, with his quiet intensity and surprisingly physical athleticism making for an interesting outwardly character study. Along with Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, he has amassed one of the most interesting careers of the past few decades, seamlessly moving between large-scale Hollywood productions and offbeat indies. If anything, Inside serves as a nice appetizer of Dafoe before the main course is served by Wes Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos later this year with Asteroid City and Poor Things / AND, respectively.
The bluntness of Inside doesn’t make an immediately rewatchable experience, nor does the ho-hum narrative make for an immediate reason to see it in the first place. Katsoupis tries his best to make his film a work of art. But just like all the pieces hanging on the walls within the apartment, his work will quickly get tossed away in favor of anything that offers more sustenance.