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‘Inside’ Review – Stuck in Artistic Purgatory With Willem Dafoe

Though Willem Dafoe is as outstanding as ever in the film's lead role, 'Inside' is ultimately a bittersweet affair.

With a film like Inside, there’s really only a couple directions its story can go.

Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo in director Vasilis Katsoupis’ INSIDE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

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Revolving around the whirlwind performance of Willem DaFoe and putting forth a message along the lines of ‘art can be created from just about anything, even destruction’, Inside follows an art thief named Nemo (Dafoe) as he targets several high-price pieces in a luxurious high-rise New York apartment.

After breaking in and retrieving his desired loot, Nemo attempts to leave, but becomes trapped when the security system malfunctions. Stuck with little food and water, an air conditioning system that fluctuates between unbearably hot or freezing cold, and finding the apartment being mostly soundproof, Nemo finds himself forced to choose between finding a way out and facing the authorities or dying within his defacto prison.

Nemo (Willem Dafoe) loses his sanity in Inside (2023), Focus Features
Nemo (Willem Dafoe) loses his sanity in Inside (2023), Focus Features

Directed by Greek filmmaker Vasilis Katsoupis and co-written by himself and Ben Hopkins, the 105-minute psychological thriller places a lot of emphasis on Nemo’s makeshift survival techniques and failed attempts at escape.

Because of this, Insider drags a bit in places. To its credit, the film does try to switch things up from time-to-time by showing Nemo’s isolation-induced hallucinations, it doesn’t explore this concept to the extent that you’d like it to.

Nemo (Willem Dafoe) prepares to vent his frustrations in Inside (2023), Focus Features
Nemo (Willem Dafoe) prepares to vent his frustrations in Inside (2023), Focus Features

On the other hand, the film also focuses on exploring the ever-spiraling effects Nemo’s forced seclusion has on his mind.

Take, for example, the television in the apartment, which doesn’t pick up any channels other than security cameras in the rest of the complex. With nothing else to do to pass the time, Nemo ends up watching the feeds every day while he eats.

Soon enough, Nemo finds himself crafting an entire fantasy narrative concerning his neighbors’ lives, giving everyone a name, narrating their interactions, and even getting excited over what they eat for lunch.

Nemo (Willem Dafoe) begins to spiral into madness in Inside (2023), Focus Features
Nemo (Willem Dafoe) begins to spiral into madness in Inside (2023), Focus Features

Then there’s his psuedo-interactions with ‘Jasmine’ (Elyza Stuyck), a cleaning lady whose work brings right in front of the door to the apartment Nemo is trapped in.

As his cries for help go unanswered, Nemo has a moment of lunacy when he envisions her in the apartment. While it is a rare moment of intimacy in the film, the kicker is the fact that they never actually touch each other.

'Jasmine' (Elyza Stuyck) vacuums right outside of Nemo's (Willem Dafoe) prison in Inside (2023), Focus Features
‘Jasmine’ (Elyza Stuyck) vacuums right outside of Nemo’s (Willem Dafoe) prison in Inside (2023), Focus Features

Nemo’s mental deterioration can also be seen in how he completely trashes the apartment over the course of the film.

With no means of escape and no signs that the man who actually lives there will be returning any time soon, Nemo’s penchant for drawing in his handheld sketchbook leads to him eventually drawing and scribbling his inner thoughts all over the walls of the apartment.

In an attempt to reach a glass panel in the ceiling, he builds a tower out of shelves, couches, and whatever other furniture he can find. Left with no other options, he leaves a mountain of feces just sitting in the apartment.

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

And yet all of this speaks to the film’s aforementioned message about the nature of art. Without downright spoiling the end of the film, what could otherwise be viewed as total and complete desecration is actually a different form of art in itself.

While his mountain of feces is disgusting, it’s something that is altered on a daily basis that also wasn’t there when he first arrived.

Nemo (Willem Dafoe) begins to construct his tower to freedom in Inside (2023), Focus Features
Nemo (Willem Dafoe) begins to construct his tower to freedom in Inside (2023), Focus Features

The scribbles on the wall, the pile of torn up furniture – all of this can be considered art that is a direct result of Nemo’s incarceration. Whether it’s considered good or not isn’t important. Sometimes things need to be destroyed in order to create something new.

Nemo references it at the beginning and end of the film, but while most of his possessions have been lost over time the one thing that has survived is his sketchbook. One of the best lines of the film is, “Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeps.”

Nemo (Willem Dafoe) doodles on the walls in Inside (2023), Focus Features
Nemo (Willem Dafoe) doodles on the walls in Inside (2023), Focus Features

Another interesting aspect of the film is that it seems to pay homage to certain animated films and shorts.

For instance, Nemo’s name and the apartment he’s trapped in having a saltwater fish tank with a Moorish Idol – the fish with white, yellow, and black vertical stripes on its body – swimming inside of it both seem to be throwbacks to Dafoe’s appearance as Gill in Finding Nemo.

A Moorish Idol appears in Inside (2023), Focus Features
A Moorish Idol appears in Inside (2023), Focus Features

But what the Moorish Idol symbolizes is also fascinating. Known for their natural beauty, Moorish Idols eat a lot and often become destructive once they’re forced into captivity, often requiring large fish tanks to live in.

As such, not only are the fish are difficult to keep alive in an isolated setting, and it is often recommended that people not even try. Thanks to his failed art heist, Nemo finds himself in a similar predicament.

Nemo (Willem Dafoe) does his best Aquaman impression in Inside (2023), Focus Features
Nemo (Willem Dafoe) does his best Aquaman impression in Inside (2023), Focus Features

The film also offers an unexpected reference to a Friz Freleng directed Looney Tunes short from 1951 entitled Canned Feud.

In the short, Sylvester’s owners go on vacation and forget to put him outside before they leave. With the family’s milk order being put on hold for the duration of their trip, Sylvester finds himself facing two weeks trapped inside without food.

However, he soon discovers a cupboard filled with canned tuna and cat food, but in classic slapstick fashion finds that the only can opener in the entire house is currently in possession of a pesky mouse.

After spending a majority of the short chasing the mouse, Sylvester eventually secures his prize. Unfortunately for him, his victory is short lived, as he soon discovers that the mouse has locked the pantry and taken the key with him – leaving Sylvester in the same predicament he started in.

In Inside, Nemo has a similar interaction, though he resorts to using a steak knife on the cans (and cuts his palm in the process).

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

An exploration of isolation that’s less convoluted than Velvet Buzzsaw and centers on the mesmerizing performance of a singular actor ala Ryan Reynolds in the survival thriller Buried or Sam Rockwell in the underappreciated sci-fi drama Moon, Inside is ultimately a bittersweet affair.

Dafoe is as outstanding as ever, commanding every scene with an unbelievably desperate and overwhelmingly engrossing performance, the film is overall held back by its predictable outcome and dreadfully slow pacing – which, sadly, no amount of Dafoe dancing to the Macarena of having a full-on conversation with a pigeon helps to alleviate.

Nemo (Willem Dafoe) converses with a pigeon in Inside (2023), Focus Features
Nemo (Willem Dafoe) converses with a pigeon in Inside (2023), Focus Features
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