Inside review: a gritty, ill-conceived psychological drama

“Inside is an ambitious but ultimately ineffectual psychological drama.”


  • Willem Dafoe’s go-for-brake solo performance

  • An effective disorienting pace


  • A winding, too long story

  • A disappointing lack of tension throughout

  • A lame conclusion

Inside is a thoroughly unpleasant film. However, that’s not so much a bug as a feature. From director Vasilis Katsoupis and writer Ben Hopkins, the film is a self-contained descent into the mind of a man trapped in the most absurdly stifling, bourgeoisie of all time. Despite what the trailers might lead you to believe, Inside is not really a thriller either. The film, on the other hand, is not only a test of the character’s patience, but also of the audience. For nearly two hours, Katsoupis and Hopkins ask you to watch as an incarcerated art thief must lower himself to his most animalistic standards in order to survive.

Inside is, in other words, a cinematic endurance test. The displays of filth and madness grow over the course of the story until they reach such absurd lows that you wonder what the point of them was. Unfortunately, Inside does not answer this question satisfactorily. In fact, beyond the commendable, go-for-brake performance at its heart, there’s not much left Inside that is recommended. The film ends up being as shallow as the ankle-high pond that sits in the middle of the New York City penthouse apartment Insidethe story unfolds.

Willem Dafoe walks past a photo in Inside.
Focus features

The film tries, to its credit or its fault, to hide the superficial depth of its story for as long as possible. The drama’s opening minutes made it the kind of bare-bones but efficient heist thriller it certainly isn’t. Over the course of the prologue, viewers watch as the film’s central art thief, Nemo (Willem Dafoe), infiltrates a high-security NYC penthouse owned by a famous artist and begins looting some of the paintings and sculptures that the apartment scattered.

Everything goes wrong when a system malfunction activates the apartment’s strictest security measures, which not only seal Dafoe’s Nemo behind impenetrable steel doors and bulletproof glass windows, but also shut down the penthouse’s electricity and plumbing. Abandoned by his fellow robbers, Nemo soon begins to realize that his out-of-town apartment has now become the prison in which he could very well die. From then on, Nemo’s desperation for survival only continues to grow until he is willing to not only eat dog food, but also climb dangerously high piles of rearranged furniture on the slim chance that they can lead him to freedom.

The spots Inside in the end, its not nearly as interesting as the first act suggests. That fact doesn’t take away from how truly effective the first 20 minutes are Inside Are. After throwing the film’s original premise out the window, Katsoupis and Hopkins give out InsideThe opening minutes of Dafoe’s Nemo pile up problem after problem until the sense of dread created by his seemingly inescapable situation has become overwhelming. The early moments of Nemo successfully shutting down his new prison’s blaring alarms and figuring out how to take full advantage of the miniature garden’s sprinkler system also play out Inside to one Man escapes-esque, Robert Bresson-inspired minimalist thriller.

Willem Dafoe looks at a photo in Inside.
Focus features

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Inside in the end it doesn’t go that way. Instead, the film spends most of its second and third acts chasing surreal detours and dawdling in moments of quiet, increasingly dull madness. At first, the final scenes, including one in which Dafoe’s Nemo decides to tell a joke to an entire imaginary crowd of listeners, hit with a decent level of startling sharpness. But by the time Nemo’s puppetry plays chairs and sings the same songs to itself over and over, the film has lost so much tension that even Dafoe’s greatest moments of insane desperation feel superfluous rather than jarring or unnerving.

Instead of maintaining a constant voltage, Inside gets so caught up in wallowing in the misery of the protagonist’s situation that any sense of urgency or tension is completely gone by the time the film is halfway through. While Inside also throws in more than a few moments of surreal fantasy during its runtime, very few of which land with real weight. Behind the camera, Katsoupi’s visual style feels so suffocatingly controlled that it appears Inside of ever really reaching the kind of surreal, dreamlike heights it so desperately strives for.

Willem Dafoe looks out of a penthouse window in Inside.
Focus features

Of the film’s surreal sequences, the only one that leaves a lasting impression is Dafoe’s Nemo briefly fantasizing about a maid (Eliza Stuyck) whom he has been watching through a set of security cameras as she enters his penthouse prison and shares a moment of understated intimacy with it. Katsoupis camera cuts extremely close to Dafoe’s lips and cheeks throughout the scene, and Steve Annis’ cinematography lovingly captures the moments when Stuyck’s maid draws her lips and fingers down Nemo’s face without ever actually touching him.

The scene is one of the few moments where Inside feels trapped in the protagonist’s emotions and loneliness. For the rest of the term, Inside feels way too preoccupied with maintaining a cold, omniscient perspective. While it may seem equally interesting ideas about how wealth and art have become toxicly linked in the 21st century as well, Inside never pursues any of his various ideas so deeply that they feel completely baked or thought-provoking. The fact that the film’s story ends with a series of evocative images rather than a dose of concrete catharsis (or even dark humor) only makes it much clearer how badly Katsoupis misjudged what moviegoers actually want from Inside‘s story.

It’s the tragic irony at the heart of it Inside that the movie, like its protagonist, never really goes anywhere.

Inside now playing in theaters.

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