Review: ‘Inside’ (2023), starring Willem Dafoe

March 18, 2023

by Carla Hay

Willem Dafoe In “Inside” (Photo by Wolfgang Ennenbach/Focus Features)

“Inside” (2023)

Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Inside” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A burglar breaks into a wealthy man’s penthouse to steal valuable art, and he is trapped inside by a malfunctioning security system. 

Culture Audience: “Inside” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Willem Dafoe and people who don’t mind watching slow-paced psychological dramas with good acting.

Willem Dafoe In “Inside” (Photo by Wolfgang Ennenbach/Focus Features)

“Inside” would’ve been better as a short film. However, Willem Dafoe gives an acting performance worth watching for people who don’t have short attention spans. Don’t expect much action in this drama. This movie is a psychological portrait of confinement.

Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis and written by Ben Hopkins, “Inside” takes place entirely in an upscale New York City penthouse. (The movie was actually filmed on a soundstage in Cologne, Germany.) “Inside” had its world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. Dafoe is the only person with an on-camera speaking role in the movie. If you know that information in advance, then you’ll either be interested or not interested in watching “Inside.”

The beginning of “Inside” has a voiceover monologue from art thief Nemo, the character played by Dafoe. In the monologue, Nemo says: “When I was a kid, a teacher asked what are the three things I would save from my house if it were on fire.” I answered, ‘A sketchbook, my AC/DC album and my cat Groucho.'”

He continues, “I didn’t say. ‘My parents or sister.’ Most of the other kids did [mention family members]. Does that make me a bad person? My cat died. I lent the AC/DC album to a guy named Kojo, and I never saw it again. But the sketchbook, I kept. Cats die. Music fades. But art is for keeps.”

That’s about all the information that viewers will get about Nemo’s background. He is next shown breaking into a New York City penthouse, where the occupants are not home. Nemo is there to steal specific pieces of valuable art, especially a self-portrait painting of the penthouse’s owner, whose name is never mentioned in the movie.

Another portrait painting of the owner hangs in the living room, with this particular portrait showing the owner (played by Gene Bervoets), who is a middle-aged man with white hair, and his daughter (played by Ava von Voigt), who looks about 12 or 13 years old. There are clues that this owner is a well-known artist, besides his valuable self-portrait. Nemo finds photos in the home of the penthouse owner with high-society people at fancy gala events.

Nemo communicates by walkie talkie with a cohort who’s not in the building but identifies himself as Number 3 (voiced by Andrew Blumenthal), who is directing Nemo on which art pieces are the top priorities to steal. Number 3 says that the owner’s self-portrait painting is the most important art that needs to be taken in this heist, because this painting is worth $3 million. Nemo takes some other paintings and a sculpture, but he can’t find the self-portrait painting. This heist has been timed so that Nemo is supposed to steal what he came to steal and leave in a matter of 10 minutes or less.

But something goes horribly wrong for Nemo. The security access code that Number 3 gives him to leave the penthouse undetected doesn’t work. Instead, the security system triggers an alarm, with a computerized voice repeating loudly, “System malfunction.” And then, all of the doors and windows in the penthouse are locked shut from the outside. Nemo is now trapped in the penthouse.

Nemo frantically tells Number 3 what just happened and asks for help. However, Number 3 is in a panic too. He tells Nemo: “I don’t know what to do, man. I’m sorry. You’re on your own. Over and out.”

Nemo has no idea if anyone heard the alarm or not. (The penthouse’s walls are and doors are very thick.) However, Nemo doesn’t want to wait around to find out if police or the building’s security are on their way to catch him during this burglary. He tries to break a window, but the windows are shatter-proof. But even if he were able to break a glass, he’s also at the top of a high-rise building in a penthouse that doesn’t have a fire escape staircase outside any windows.

One of the first things that Nemo does is find the wiring that leads to the alarm system. He cuts it so that there is no more noise. After a while, when it becomes obvious that no one heard the alarm, Nemo relaxes a little and looks inside the refrigerator, which is equipped with artificial intelligence technology that speaks. A somewhat amusing gag in the movie is that the refrigerator also plays Los Del Rio’s 1993 novelty hit “Macarena” at random times when the refrigerator is opened.

The penthouse has enough food and drinks for Nemo. After he drinks everything in the refrigerator, Nemo uses a garden sprinkler (the penthouse has an indoor garden) or tap water for liquid sustenance. But there’s another problem: The heating inside the penthouse has been turned up from the security malfunction. The temperature reaches up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Nemo finds out that the adjustment equipment for the indoor heating system isn’t working. And so, there are several scenes where sweaty Nemo tries to solve that problem.

The penthouse has surveillance video equipment with video monitors that look out into various parts of the building. Nemo can see the doorman station in the front lobby, a back stairwell, and inside one of the building’s elevators. A building housekeeper dressed in a maid’s uniform is shown taking her lunch breaks in the stairwell. Nemo knows her name is Jasmine (played by Eliza Stuyck), and he knows the names of a few other people in the building when he sees them on the surveillance monitors. It’s an indication that Nemo either cased the place very well before the heist, or he might have met these people before in some capacity.

Viewers will have to speculate why this penthouse’s owner was targeted for this theft. However, there are some clues that Nemo is an architect who’s a frustrated artist and who is jealous of this penthouse owner. Nemo has a sketchbook with him that he uses during the time he is trapped. He also seems very knowledgeable about how buildings are structured. And early on in the movie, Nemo looks at a painting of the owner on the wall while Nemo holds a medallion that he’s wearing as a necklace. Nemo sneers at the painting and says, “I’ve got a Pritzker Prize. What the fuck have you done?”

Because “Inside” is all about Nemo being isolated, there isn’t much talking throughout the movie. Nemo occasionally mutters things out loud. And as loneliess starts to set in, he begins to talk out loud to himself more often. Nemo tries to contact Number 3 by walkie talkie multiple times, but he gets no answer. Eventually, the walkie talkie battery goes dead. Nemo also texts an unnamed person to try to help him, but he gets no reply.

“Inside” has a few plot holes, some of which have logical explanations while others do not. The first question that some viewers might ask is: “Isn’t a good alarm system supposed to alert law enforcement?” A possible explanation is that the alarm system malfunctioned (as stated in the beginning of the movie), so the law enforcement alert part of the alarm system didn’t work.

What’s hard to believe is that Nemo stays trapped in the penthouse for “months,” without anyone going to the penthouse and finding him there, according to the production notes for “Inside.” It’s very unlikely that someone with the penthouse owner’s wealth would not have anyone checking in on the penthouse for that long period of time, even if it’s just to water the plants. A better and more believable narrative for the film would have been to have Nemo trapped for a week or two at the most.

That would still be enough time to have what happens in the movie: The reality starts to sink in with Nemo that no one really cares about him. And it really messes with his mind. He is trapped in a luxury penthouse with material things worth a lot of money, but the irony is that Nemo doesn’t have what every non-hermit human being needs: some kind of meaningful connection with other people. For all intents and purposes, the penthouse (which has excellent production design by Thorsten Sabel) has become a gilded cage for Nemo. Even though “Inside” is not Dafoe’s best movie, he is still riveting to watch in this performance.

“Inside” is not going to please viewers who think that the movie should have more suspense or subplots. A predictable storyline would have been for Nemo to use the surveillance equipment as a way to entertain himself. Instead, the movie shows Nemo’s mental deterioration as a way to invite viewers to think about what they would do if they were trapped in a luxury home with no one to talk to for weeks on end, and no way to escape unless someone came to the rescue. “Inside” is a thoughtful but long-winded story that puts into perspective what really matters in life, when so many people in society perceive material wealth to be the key to happiness.

Focus Features released “Inside” in select U.S. cinemas on March 17, 2023.

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