Inside, directed by Vasilis Katsoupis, features an intriguing performance by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe, one of my favorite actors, is always brilliant even if the film falters, and that’s exactly the case here. Inside has no real plot, and even though I will watch Dafoe doing even the most mundane things, the film pushes the limit. Films like Locke, Buried, and Trapped (which the film is strikingly similar to, at least in concept) are some notable examples that have only one actor predominantly driving the show in one location, but Inside feels just a bit too dry to be called engaging. The intent of the film is to get you into the mind of the character played by Willem Dafoe, and it hopes that some deep meaning will emerge through the metaphor of art that humans leave behind after they themselves leave the world. Whether or not it does is purely subjective, but the film left me wanting.
The story is quite simple. Nemo, an art thief, gets an assignment to break into a wealthy man’s penthouse to steal paintings, some worth as much as 3 million dollars. The heist does not go as planned, and due to a malfunction in the security system, Nemo gets locked up in the house. As the owner is away, Nemo tries to contact the outside world, but slowly, the isolation and the dearth of resources test Nemo’s will to survive. It’s a tough performance. There aren’t many tricks you can pull here, and yet, Dafoe brings Nemo’s declining sense of self to the forefront with masterful control.
Willem Dafoe as Nemo
Nemo and his teammates have zeroed in on a wealthy businessman’s penthouse that has artwork worth millions. There are at least three guys in Nemo’s unit, including him. He is number one; the guy who dropped him off at the man’s penthouse from the chopper was probably number two, and there is a security hacker who is number three. Nemo has always been interested in art. Ever since his childhood, actually. It’s a strange fascination considering that when a teacher asked him a hypothetical question about what he would save from a house fire, he answered – a sketchbook. Not his parents or siblings, mind you, but his sketchbook. His AC/DC’s vinyl record and his cat were his other two additions, but he lost both of them eventually. Only the sketchbook remained. Now, he wasn’t exactly going with the intention to create art in the penthouse; he was going to steal the extravagant paintings.
Nemo feels guilty about his fascination with art. Maybe he felt he wasn’t ‘normal’ like the other kids, and now, decades later, he was committing a one-of-a-kind heist, which was like a stamp that he was truly eccentric. An artist who turned out to be a thief. Nemo got in through the roof all right, but while he was leaving, the security system malfunctioned, the alarm went off, and all exit points closed. Surprisingly, when the alarm went off, Nemo’s partner in crime, who was in constant touch through the walkie-talkie, vanished. Maybe the connection was severed, but it was strange that he didn’t do anything to save Nemo. The alarm didn’t attract any attention either.
When you get trapped in a penthouse, panic doesn’t set in immediately. It isn’t like you got trapped in a dingy, claustrophobia-inducing attic. Nemo, too, did not react erratically after getting trapped. He could hear the helicopter circling around the building. Perhaps help wasn’t far away. The lavish penthouse was full of paintings and glorious artifacts. The owner was on his trip to Kazakhstan, and there are no hints given about his return. Nemo had to get out, but how? He started with the main door. He sweated to chip the wood away, only to run into the door’s metal reinforcement. The penthouse had no water supply, nor was the refrigerator stocked. Nemo was soon going to starve. If this wasn’t enough, the central temperature control started acting up as it went from extremely hot to extreme cold as the days passed, and Nemo started to get frustrated that he wasn’t able to come up with any sort of plan to get out of there.
Isolation: does all great art stem from there? Or is it out of boredom? Or from the struggle for survival, perhaps? Well, now Nemo has all three. As a few days went by and Nemo started to run out of food, he started to sketch again in his sketchbook. The same one, apparently, that he had hypothetically saved from the house fire. He started to create a tower out of the furniture available in the penthouse in the hope that he would reach a glass ceiling, which could be his way out of there. Other than that, he hoped that Jasmine (christened by Nemo himself), the cleaning lady would hear his cries and open the main door or call for help. He could see the CCTV footage on the owner’s television but could not get her to open the door, no matter how hard he tried. The excessive heat and the excessive cold made him sick, and Nemo began to lose his mind, but interestingly, the number of art forms he indulged in increased. He started to draw on the walls and had delirious sessions of standup comedy, with no spectators, of course. There was an injured pigeon on the balcony. Nemo was separated just by a thick glass door, and soon, his only confidant also passed away and began to rot.
Nemo was probably going to suffer the same fate. His fever dreams displayed so many of his fantasies and desires. At one point, he saw himself at one of the penthouse owner’s lavish parties held to showcase a preview of a famous artist duo, where Nemo stood in front of him as an equal. What would Nemo’s fate have been had circumstances been slightly different? In the dream, he accepted that he was an island: alone and undiscovered, he was truly isolated. The puppet in the dream was like a final stamp on his destiny. This was not his world, and now the penthouse was going to be his coffin. He was going to die and longed for a woman’s touch, which was why he hallucinated Jasmine coming in and caressing him. With all the energy and willpower left in him, he went to unscrew the glass ceiling and tumbled down, hurting his leg. This seemed like the end of the road for him, but he saw the smoke detector and tried to send a signal through that. He lit up a wooden table leg, and the water came sprinkling down until the whole house was flooded. Lastly, Nemo climbed his self-made tower and apparently climbed out onto the roof.
Can this be a hallucination? Probably yes. Is he dead? Not yet, but he certainly will be. There is a slim chance that he got on the rooftop, the circling helicopter saw him, and he was rescued. But that’s not the point now, is it? The real question is: What will be the interpretation of the one who opens the door and finds Nemo dead in the house? All they would see is Nemo’s artwork, present all over the house. His shrine, made from the nut bolts of the glass ceiling. His magnificent tower, the one he used to climb to unscrew the nuts. His sketchbook, and his drawings on the walls that he made in a state of delirium, and ultimately, his scarred and bruised corpse had engraved upon itself the tireless struggle to be free. Nemo wrote on the wall that the penthouse must have been the owner’s home, but for him, it proved to be a cage. A cage he couldn’t get out of, most probably, and yet he didn’t forget to apologize for his art. It just goes to show that he valued the paintings much more than what he had painted over them during his stay in the penthouse. It was like he felt he had stained them. It would have been understandable to have such a thought when one is healthy, but even when Nemo is about to die, he doesn’t forget to apologize, which reveals the gap between him and the owner—a metaphor for the equality gap in our society, in my opinion.
Dafoe, who portrayed the role of Van Gogh in one of his earlier films, again played Nemo like a tortured artist. Similar to Van Gogh, Nemo struggled, yet his art only got more profound. He starved and injured himself but kept struggling to feel free. Maybe Dafoe has a thing for playing tortured artists. The question of whether Nemo is dead or alive is irrelevant. As he says himself in the film, “Art is for Keeps” (which is why he decided to keep the sketchbook). It is the art humans leave behind that matters ultimately. Nemo may have died, but he left behind his story, expressed through his art, which may be uprooted the moment the owner gets back, but until then, it will stand as a testament to his existence in the penthouse. That is what Nemo left behind.