Willem Dafoe’s ‘Inside’ is the new definitive COVID movie

Images courtesy Focus Features.

9/10 Inside is the new definitive icon of the COVID-19 crisis in film that explores the psychological damage of isolation and the way attitudes change toward the comforts of home when you’re trapped in it.

That’s Willem Dafoe in Vasilis Katsoupis’ Inside, not the other one.

Times Square- Professional art thief Nemo (Dafoe) breaks into an art collector’s penthouse to steal three works from Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. He gets in fine, but his attempts to leave trigger the penthouse’s security features, and he becomes trapped in a “Robinson Crusoe” esque fight for survival, not against the elements on a deserted island, but against his own body in a penthouse that has been emptied of food and water.

Inside was shot in 2021 under COVID-19 protocols, but wasn’t conceived as a specific reaction to the crisis, but everything in it takes on new meaning as a function of the holistic, worldwide disaster – this is why Inside succeeds in capturing COVID isolation. It confronts that specific transformation that plays out with the context of being locked up.

The film engages directly with the psychological impact of COVID-19 isolation, specifically coping mechanisms and the uselessness of everything American culture trains us to aspire toward in an emergency situation, especially the uselessness of wealth in a setting cut off from trade. Nemo came for three specific Schieles and he has access to several other priceless works as well, but he cannot liquidate any of them, and if he could, he couldn’t convert that liquidity into food and running water.

High above the Manhattan skyline, we can see through the windows that Nemo is imprisoned in one of the most expensive addresses in the entire world. He is surrounded by opulence, but everything is broken, and with the owner away on business in Kazakhstan, there are scant few resources left in the penthouse. He has no cable or internet access, and in his first attempt to escape, he breaks the climate control on 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The refrigerator and pantry are nearly empty, and most urgently, he can’t find a source of clean water. The sinks, shower and even the toilets are all disconnected, and the fish tank and standing water feature appear to be salted or chlorinated. Nemo subsists on the frost that builds on the walls of the freezer before eventually rigging bowls to capture the timed water sprinklers on the owner’s indoor garden.

In the limited, cavernous space, Katsoupis and cinematographer Steve Annis are never wanting for ways to shoot and light it. Shots remain vibrant, inventive and new throughout, with barely a single shot repeated or even called back to. Nemo triggers an alarm blare that apparently would have gone on forever, creating a clear boundary between acts without ever changing the space.

For the most part, the custom-built set is Dafoe’s only co-star, and it’s designed to reflect the personality of this faceless owner – all we know about him is he’s the kind of person who would own these things, who would take up this much space, fill it with this little and leave it sitting completely empty for a months-long business trip. As the situation grows more dire and Nemo stretches his limited resources ever further, that becomes all we need to know about the owner.

As the film goes on, wear and tear add new subjects to shoot. Seasons pass as Nemo’s isolation stretches eternal, and there’s a lot of specific imagery of the few foods that are left rotting in this extremely clean, sheer space. Later on, we’ll get the byproducts of human existence, which pile up faster and more severely than most COVID isolations due to the lack of running water – dishes he can’t wash piled up in the sink, and, in one moment, the corner where he’s piled up all the feces that he can’t flush.

The enormous penthouse frequently makes Nemo look very small in the frame.

Nemo, a professional art thief and life-long artist himself, already has a complicated relationship with art, and bitterness toward art is a big part of the film’s point – it comes straight at you in the tagline, “art will not save you.”

In sequence, Nemo tries to carve through the door, break windows with a rock, build an elaborate scaffold out of furniture to get to the skylight, start a fire and finally ask the pigeons on the balcony to send help.

Despite his clear and earnest desperation, Nemo seems to treat trying to escape like a 9-to-5 that he prepares for, winds down from and, in the evenings, he relaxes. He dances to the music that plays when the freezer is held open too long and constructs an elaborate rig so he can drink water from a bottle of vodka he’s emptied – it’s probably a four-figure bottle of alcohol, so a very nice piece of glass, but also highlights that even containers are in short supply. He draws in his sketchbook, which was so important to him that he brought it with him on the heist. He rigs up a television to watch security footage, for which he makes up characters and engages with as a television series. He plays! He delivers parody monologues of the types of shows he might be watching, which betray his thoughts without ever speaking them directly.

The monologues feel like appropriately distanced breaks in the silence, but there’s no extraneous dialogue, and Dafoe’s lonely voice rings out over the film. Inside would obviously have been just fine without one of history’s greatest actors carrying it, but it’s a good show that they got someone worth being trapped inside with for months on end to do this. Katsoupis shot the film in chronological order to best capture the space’s destruction, and Dafoe could guide his character’s self-destruction in real-time as well. He’s credited as much as 30% of the film to coming from Dafoe himself.

Nemo takes the whole movie to go crazy, but when he does, it adds vivid, well-populated dream sequences, and he finally starts to destroy the art and apartment itself, sketching his dark emotions on the copious empty wall space. Like many relationships in COVID isolation, Nemo’s relationship with art as a concept, even the owner’s priceless collection, sours as he’s trapped with it for months, and the viewer’s changes as well as we’re trapped with him for 105 minutes.

Despite the incredible visual creativity, the film has the effect of a still image that changes as you stare at it and notice more and more detail until it becomes a different image entirely, all the while knowing it is you the viewer who is changed.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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