Why is it that so many crime films are about art theft? It’s because the exploration of man’s desire to acquire art leads to an exploration of art itself. What is its purpose? Why are men so fascinated by it and covitous of it? And what will man do when that obsession is put up against the will to survive? These are questions tackled by director Vasilis Katsoupis and the answers embodied with physical intensity by Willem Dafoe in the claustrophobic thriller, Inside, which recently made its world premiere at Berlinale.
Dafoe is at the top of his game as the appropriately-named Nemo, an art thief with a single-minded obsession to break into a swank Manhattan apartment to steal some Egon Schiele pieces. Looking lithe and strong, Dafoe appears to have dropped weight for the role. He moves stealthily throughout the film, like a master cat burglar. Nemo’s plan doesn’t unfold as he planned, the security system is triggered, the doors slam shut, the windows, too. He’s stuck inside this art collector’s flat with absolutely no chance of escape. But at least he’s got some pretty paintings to look at?
The fascinating aspect of Inside is Nemo’s slow descent into madness, surrounded by the objects of his desire and also his undoing. Nemo sees art as an expression of man’s enduring nature, and he becomes the living embodiment of that while trapped in this posh prison. Of course, he does whatever he can to survive. There’s the need to scavenge for food and water, but it’s the lack of human connection that does him in most. Nemo’s accomplice, who he had been communicating with on the outside, leaves him high and dry when things got out-of-hand.
It’s a perfectly complex role and performance by Dafoe, an actor who has proven he can do anything, be anyone, when he puts his mind to it. As Nemo’s physical and mental endurance is tested, Katsoupis indulges in the taxing toll it’s having on his body. Dafoe has never looked more like a man consumed for his passions, an artist suffering for his craft. Ben Hopkins’ lean script leaves the maximum amount of room for Dafoe to be in the spotlight, but manages to be entertaining while exploring larger themes. That said, it’s also one of those films that, if thought about too much, could have holes poked into the logic of it. For such a skilled thief, Dafoe’s Nemo is woefully unprepared. While Dafoe keeps us hooked, Katsoupis’ experience as a documentarian occasionally leads to a frustrating casualness of plot progression.
Inside works as both a character study and a self-contained thriller, powered by Dafoe’s fierce performance. As Nemo wastes away in a prison of his own making, the art around him continues on. It endures, just as Dafoe continues to endure as one of our finest actors.
Inside opens in theaters on March 17th.