Willem Dafoe is a well-regarded actor who, over the course of a long and successful career, has earned the respect of his peers. When it comes to high-profile awards, though, Dafoe seems to be always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
The recipient of four Academy Award nominations, three Golden Globe nods, and two individual Screen Actors Guild nominations, Dafoe has — somewhat astonishingly — never actually won any of those prizes. He’s picked up a couple of Independent Spirit Awards (for ‘Shadow of the Vampire’ and ‘The Lighthouse’), but otherwise contented himself with simply plying his trade, enjoying his craft and the company of those with whom he gets to indulge it.
“A solitary exhibition.”
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INSIDE tells the story of Nemo, an art thief trapped in a New York penthouse after his heist doesn’t go as planned. Locked inside with nothing but priceless works… Read the Plot
Because Dafoe loves to work, is open to location shoots all over the globe, and makes himself readily available to auteurs (Wes Anderson, Sean Baker, Robert Eggers, Lars von Trier, Paul Schrader, David Lynch and Julian Schnabel, to name a few), the 67-year-old actor often finds himself cast in colorful supporting roles and/or as singular, frequently intense leading men.
On the surface, a movie like ‘Inside’ would seem to slot in this same groove of Dafoe’s canon — a “performance piece” that provides ample showcase for its lead actor to strut about, and perhaps chew some scenery. After all, the project is basically a one-man show, in which the main character grapples with the psychological ramifications of being trapped in a single location.
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But ‘Inside,’ which opens in theaters on March 17th, actually overlaps much more considerably with some of the experimental theater work from early in Dafoe’s career. So while it lacks the type of big hooks which could take its narrative off in directions that would hold more mainstream appeal, this sort of experience — and Dafoe’s gifts with communicating a character’s rich interior life — makes him the ideal performer for this manner of experimental effort, which is basically a stage play masquerading (in fine cinematic form) as a film.
‘Inside’ opens with voiceover narration, featured in the trailer, that lets audiences know tightly bound to the movie’s lead character they will be. As Dafoe’s Nemo, a high-end art thief, conducts a timed heist of a tony New York City penthouse, he recalls being asked in school as part of an assignment what three items he would save in a house fire.
When Nemo can’t find a particularly lucrative self-portrait, valued at $3 million, the break-in begin to unravel. The security system, previously thought to be disabled, sets off an alarm. Exterior doors lock shut, the colleague speaking to him via an earpiece disengages, and Nemo is left trapped. Doom seems imminent.
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Then a funny thing happens. As he tries to smash his way out, the apartment’s A/C system malfunctions, turning on the heat. A mostly-empty talking refrigerator yields only truffle shavings, caviar and a couple sips of water. When those supplies are exhausted, Nemo is left to hungrily slurp freezer walls. As hours turn into days, and days then turn into weeks, Nemo comes to view closed-circuit security camera footage from the building as entertainment, fixating on a cleaning lady, Jasmine (Eliza Stuyck), who can never hear him.
There are of course a fair number of single-location escape movies (Vincenzo Natali’s ‘Cube’) as well as no shortage of films that tell stories of stranded desolation (Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Cast Away’). ‘Inside’ will remind some viewers of the latter, which is fair and accurate insofar as both are told through an existential lens. But there’s even less accommodation for general audiences than in ‘Cast Away.’
Save one well-produced vision of an art show, ‘Inside’ doesn’t lean into hallucinations. It also eschews heavy plotting, instead alternating various escape or outside-contact schemes (some with long arcs, some short) with Nemo just watching TV, making meals, or puttering about.
There’s no ticking clock as it relates to events unfolding onscreen, nor any identified outside threat. Once Nemo is cut loose by his unseen colleague, he’s alone with only his thoughts — save a couple tropical fish in an aquarium, and a pigeon with a wounded wing fluttering outside on the balcony.
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Debut feature director Vasilis Katsoupis — working from a script by Ben Hopkins, based on an idea by Katsoupis — is using one man’s capture, and downward spiral, as a mechanism by which to explore identity, community and human frailty.
The film’s narrative therefore rests on more intellectual and metaphorical planes. As Nemo piles furniture higher and higher, in an effort to reach the apartment’s skylight, the intersection of two different art forms provides some food for thought; the stack of objects becomes its own piece of “art,” in a way. Likewise, one is left free to ponder the implications and symbolic significance of Nemo’s inability to locate a self-portrait as being the inciting incident of this situation.
Dafoe’s acting, of course, is the glue which holds ‘Inside’ together. And it’s the type of performance that only someone trained in the theatrical arts could craft — rejecting signposted emotionality or easy, obvious choices that communicate only surface feelings.
Dropping out of college after a year-and-a-half, Dafoe cut his teeth, professionally, at the experimental collective Theatre X in his home state of Wisconsin. From there Dafoe moved on to New York City. In the 1970s, he worked with the avant-garde Performance Group, training under Tisch School of the Arts professor emeritus Richard Schechner, before then tackling exploratory theater work with the Wooster Group over the next 20-plus years. This foundational experience — as well as Dafoe’s lack of vanity, frequently seen in some of his more iconic roles — benefits his work here, making Nemo a fascinating character, open to various interpretations.
By Marrying Inward-Facing Storytelling With Smart Cinematic Packaging, the Film Opens Up Avenues of Metaphorical Interpretation
Katsoupis is additionally abetted by solid work from his below-the-line team. Production designer Thorsten Sabel helps craft a set that, as it experiences degradation and destruction, takes on interesting new contours. The paintings and art installation pieces chosen for the space (some recreated, some commissioned) serve up their own additional commentary (“All the time that will come after this moment,” reads a signature in neon).
Editor Lambis Haralambidis achieves a graceful, intuitive rhythm to the proceedings, while cinematographer Steve Annis uses smart inserts (sweat beading on Dafoe’s neck) and evocative overall framing to elevate the material, and keep it cinematic despite the contained shape of its narrative.
Composer Frederik van de Moortel contributes a score which plugs into Nemo’s deteriorating psyche without nudging viewers in over-obvious fashion. And, without giving away anything specific about the ending, the use of the cyclical, shuffling “Pyramid Song,” the lead single from Radiohead’s fifth album ‘Amnesiac,’ over the end credits lends the conclusion an appropriate blend of serenity and melancholy.
In the end, is ‘Inside’ a movie that is going to break through with mainstream filmgoers? No, probably not. But, much to its credit, neither is it designed to. Its appeal may be relatively niche, with a subset of movie fans who more easily find reward in inward-facing stories that raise philosophically-tinged questions about the relatively fleeting nature of human existence and the ways in which we choose (or are forced) to spend our time. Thank goodness an actor as interesting as Dafoe chose to spend time ‘Inside.’ He makes this film worthwhile.
‘Inside’ receives 7 out of 10 stars.
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‘Inside’ is produced by A Private View, Bord Cadre Films, Heretic, Schiwago Film, Sovereign Films, Greek Film Centre, Screen Flanders, and Film- und Medienstiftung NRW, and is scheduled for release on March 17th.