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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Movie Review: ‘Inside’ is a gilded cage, with only art for company

By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

Imagine “The Martian” – the 2015 Oscar-nominated survival drama starring Matt Damon as an astronaut who must use his wits to survive after he is stranded on the Red Planet – except this time the story takes place in an unoccupied luxury penthouse in Manhattan. The hero? An aesthete/art thief (Willem Dafoe) who has accidentally locked himself inside the place, with little besides the owner’s art collection to keep him company. That, at least, is the bare bones of the movie “Inside.”

But the film ups the ante on the conventional survival-thriller genre of “Cast Away” and its ilk by posing an intriguing question: If you can’t eat, drink or wear art – if its pleasures and purpose are purely aesthetic at minimum, and spiritual at best – what earthly good is it? It’s a question that, under the circumstances of the film, is far from rhetorical.

Dafoe plays a burglar named Nemo (Latin for “no one”) in the heady narrative debut of Greek filmmaker Vasilis Katsoupis, working from a screenplay by Ben Hopkins. In the opening minutes, Nemo breaks into the residence of an unnamed Pritzker Prize-winning architect easily enough, looking primarily for a self-portrait by Austrian painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918), valued at $3 million. Instead, he initially finds only plenty of other, more contemporary works: Adrian Paci’s “Temporary Reception Center,” a still from a video of refugees lined up on airport ramp stairs; a watercolor nude by Francesco Clemente, commissioned specifically for the film; photographic documentation of Maurizio Cattelan’s 1999 installation piece, in which the artist temporarily duct-taped art dealer Massimo De Carlo to a gallery wall; and a neon sculpture by David Horvitz that reads, “All the time that will come after this moment.”

Among the names included in the closing credits – what the film calls the “Inside Art Collection” – are Joanna Piotrowska, Petrit Halilaj and other emerging artists.

None of it is mere set dressing. The movie has its own curator: Leonardo Bigazzi from the Florence-based organization Fondazione In Between Art Film, which explores the dialogue between the disciplines of moving and still images.

The allusions to crucifixion, martyrdom, entrapment, escape, time and eternity are fully intentional. A security system kicks in when Nemo tries to leave with his loot, imprisoning him. The rest of the film, which seems to transpire over weeks, if not months, consists of the protagonist trying to survive or get out. He screams to attract the attention of an oblivious maid (Eliza Stuyck) in the hallway outside the fortresslike front door. He constructs a mountain of furniture to reach an impossibly high skylight.

In between, Nemo talks to himself a little – the dialogue is sparse – at times musing on the nature and value of beauty. Since the plumbing isn’t working for some reason, he drinks water from sprinklers meant to feed the houseplants. He eats whatever he can scrounge up, including, at one point, tropical fish. And he evacuates his bowels into a cistern sunken in the middle of the living room.

Making matters worse, Nemo has somehow broken the apartment’s temperature control touch panel, so the climate fluctuates between 106 and 43 degrees. When Nemo holds open the door of the “smart” refrigerator for more than 20 seconds to cool down, it automatically plays “Macarena.”

It’s enough to drive anyone insane.

We already know from “The Lighthouse” and “At Eternity’s Gate” that Dafoe excels at this sort of thing (movies about isolation, madness and art, that is). And “Inside” – more art-house drama than thriller – is cut from that same cloth. Its fascination, if that’s the right word, is with existential questions, not engineering ones.

“Inside” is a one-man show. Its rewards – such as they are, in this bleakly depressing thought exercise – will depend entirely on your appreciation of its star. Is it entertaining? Nemo has only art for company. We at least have Willem Dafoe.