‘Inside’ Traps Willem Dafoe In a Luxurious Penthouse With Claustrophobic Intensity 

Good suspense can be inspired by the simplest of ideas. What if you were trapped inside a luxury apartment which you did not own, but had access to all of its delights? The premise seems welcoming enough until time begins to pass, security systems initiate and claustrophobia sets in. Director Vasilis Katsoupis starts with these ideas and builds them around Willem Dafoe. In essence there are only two lead characters in this movie: Dafoe and the apartment. They are pitted into a survivalist battle that alters our perceptions of certain material things. The sheen of a prized item goes away when it’s used for basic survival. Katsoupis’s only fault here is in trying to figure out how to complete the circle of his story, though for most its running time the experience is what counts.

Dafoe is Nemo, who we quickly learn is a professional thief. While communicating via walkie talkie with unknown associates, he breaks into a high rise New York City penthouse. Clad in black, Nemo’s main targets are expensive artwork the owner collects. Just as he’s about to get away with it, the security system has a malfunction and the place locks down. The water and gas shut off and the thermostat is broken. Now sheltered against his will, Nemo scrambles to find what supplies are at hand. There’s some food left in the fridge and ice cubes provide momentary water supply. Then the temperature begins to spike, before swinging to arctic levels and back again. Security cameras provide glimpses at other sections of the penthouse, like the gym and hallways. Surrounded by luxury and a beautiful view of the city, Nemo’s battle to survive becomes a struggle to keep his sanity as well. 

Katsoupis’s idea is turned into a screenplay by Ben Hopkins, who admirably manages to weave an intense narrative about confinement. “Inside” works like a good silent movie, since Nemo has no one to speak with in his solitary state. Dafoe, one of our great working actors, who can play sophisticated and nuts, has quite the task here. Everything leans on what he can do physically and with his face. He slurps water from the inside of a freezer or scoops whatever bits of jam are left in a bottle. The home becomes adversary and provider, slamming the prisoner with extreme temperatures while providing some relief with the sprinkler system. Dafoe’s dissent into a mental break isn’t on the level of the madness in “The Lighthouse,” but instead it’s a gradual suffocation. He figures out how to survive but the aim is to get the hell out. 

While Katsoupis’s direction is confident, with the precision and craft of the best arthouse has to offer, the real star here is production designer Thorsten Sabel. What is achieved is a stunning set that becomes more than just another flashy movie den. It is a composite of all that is associated with the trends of a city’s jet set, ranging from classy to pretentious. Modern art is splashed on walls and neon signs with the sort of slogans one sees at the Hammer Museum in L.A. hang over the fireplace. Trendy magazines stack on coffee tables with art books. Katsoupis and Sabel create the kind of wealthy home where you wonder how anyone truly lives there, since much of it seems dangerous to touch. But of course the owner is mysteriously absent for long stretches as Nemo tries to make it through each day. 

The seed of satire in this movie is in how the luxuriant becomes hellish. Cinematographer Steve Annis, another wonderful element in this film, uses the typical lighting that accentuates a space like this with the look of a décor magazine. As the movie progresses, everything begins to seem distorted or off-putting. The trick is that the items haven’t changed much, it’s their value. What’s the point of having a fine toilet or grand tub if there’s no water? Once the Whole Foods snacks run out, sprinkler water tastes like heaven to Nemo. Extreme heat and cold also have their ways of making the most lavish abode into a torture cage. The young cleaning lady we spy on through the security cameras works away vacuuming and seems more content during her lunch break than the entrapped man.

“Inside” has such an engaging premise and structure that it’s only flaws are how Katsoupis attempts to close the story, and the clarity of the overall plot. It is enough to have a thief fall into the home’s trap. We don’t need cryptic flashbacks to the home’s rich owner at a gallery show. Little is explained in terms of motivations or connections in these scenes. The ending that Katsoupis goes for is also too much of a sudden, quick resolution to the plight at hand. It feels like the old trick of, “the answer was there all along.” It should have aimed for something wilder or more cathartic, maybe haunting. This is a strong film nevertheless, with Willem Dafoe dominating every frame with equal parts vulnerability and ensuing craziness, overshadowed by all-consuming penthouse. At its heart, “Inside” is about the things we wish we own and how terrifyingly useless they can become when survival is at stake.

Inside” releases March 17 in select theaters.