Cinematic Releases: Inside (2023) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Focus Features
One-man-show Willem Dafoe and cult director Abel Ferrara have been collaborating on heady, cerebral existential cinematic fare for years but have typically flown beneath the radar of most filmgoers who would have to go an extra mile or two to find them.  Which makes the forthcoming wide release of newcoming Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis’ second feature Inside all the more peculiar: a punishing endurance test that seems to quadruple down on the very things that made Ferrara’s works sting so hard.  While not as densely cerebral as the last Ferrara-Dafoe collaboration Siberia, by the end of Inside you feel just as drained by the steady but slow cinematic embalming central star Dafoe and director Katsoupis take you down.

Experienced professional art thief Nemo (Willem Dafoe) breaks into an ultra-modern high-rise New York penthouse owned by a renowned visual artist who is away on vacation with the intention of pilfering a self-portrait worth millions of dollars.  In trying to open a safe door harboring the portrait he inadvertently triggers the alarm system which promptly locks and seals him Inside the penthouse surrounded by nothing but artworks, sculptures and little remnants of food and water left in the fridge.  From here, the entire film consists of Nemo trying systematically to break out, to procure food, to clean up despite the water being shut off, slowly going mad in the process over the next few months of captivity.
While a few other cast members like employees of the penthouse building show up on security cameras and the unnamed artist appears in photograph and in a surreal nightmare sequence, Inside (not to be confused with Bo Burnham or New French Extreme horror of the same name) is top to bottom poring over Willem Dafoe.  With no one but himself to rely on to survive, the film is keenly interested in extremely tight claustrophobic close ups of the actor’s body, face, hands, feet, back and legs, letting you see and feel the emaciation and physical/mental deterioration.  Over the course of the movie, one starts to lose our bearings and it is hard to know which end is up or down anymore.  What is palpable in this film however is an increasingly overwhelming sense of suffocation.

Right out of the gate, the film is a triumph of cinematography and production design, lensed beautifully in widescreen by Color Out of Space cinematographer Steve Annis.  Mostly trained on uncomfortable close ups, birds-eye view shots, long slow pans of the sleek interior decorum of the penthouse, the sterile but beautiful penthouse over time starts to feel more and more oppressive and threatening.  The atonal minimalist avant-garde score by Frederik Van de Moortel adds steadily to the sense of smothering and choking, like you’re slowly withering away to the sands of time unable to breathe or scream.  Willem Dafoe has yet to win an Academy Award which remains baffling as a cinephile.  Clearly one of the world’s best actors, Dafoe’s descent while painful to watch and experience is nevertheless brilliantly performed with what had to be a wealth of improvisational acting.  Few actors so confidently throw themselves upon the mercy of the court quite like Dafoe does.

At the sneak preview, the audience was up in arms over Dafoe’s swan dive back into experimental theater in a film that is tantamount to exhaustive physical suffering.  Almost like a torture manual as things continue to go from bad to worse and the squalor of the penthouse intensifies, Inside is a difficult, relentless and uncompromising horror-thriller of sorts that drops you into a purgatory that’s worse than Heaven or Hell.  Fans of Dafoe will have much to chew on while the average filmgoer will feel like they’ve been beaten up.  As for myself, I enjoyed the steady descent into a bottomless pit without looking back but most viewers are likely to abandon Dafoe’s solitary confinement passion play of sorts before finding out whether he escapes or not.  Dafoe remains one of the greatest actors ever but this was a toughie to sit through.

--Andrew Kotwicki