If INSIDE were a short film, anything up to the Academy™ definition of same, which is to say, 40 minutes or less including the credits, it would be an incisive deconstruction of art as commerce rather than aesthetics driven by a powerful performance by Willem Dafoe. Instead, it runs for 1 hour and 45 minutes, during which the same idioms are on an endless loop that eventually becomes just a little less annoying than the talking refrigerator that plays the “Macarena” if its doors are left open too long. That idiom is a working-class man starving to death in the midst of not just plenty, but obscene excess. That the excess, which is to say the contemporary art with which the penthouse provides the sterile backdrop of an ultra-hip art gallery, is a construct of what the marketplace arbitrarily decides is valuable adds a piquant note. Still, and it is a testament to Mr. Dafoe’e sheer physicality as well as his on-screen presence, it remains watchable. Even during a sequence where his character, an art thief with specific taste untethered to market value, turns very expensive tropical fish into uncertain sushi.
The premise finds Nemo (yes, it’s metaphorical as is so much else here) breaking into said New York penthouse to steal three particular works from its owner, a ultra-wealthy architect currently on an extended business trip to the Middle East. This being New York, and a very expensive address, the security is not just extensive, it’s also computer-driven and monitored. Nemo has no problem hacking into the penthouse courtesy of his accomplice on the outside, but after finding two of the three works for which he is there, hacking out of the penthouse is stymied by a technical glitch. It also messes with the thermostat, turning the penthouse sometimes tropical, and sometimes arctic no matter what the weather outside. He is all but hermetically sealed inside with the water turned off, windows and doors sealed, food sparse, and no way of communicating with the outside world except for the walkie-talkie, the which his accomplice is no longer answering.
The ingenuity Nemo displays, from brute force in splintering the intricately carved wooden door that has locked him in, to his engineering prowess in attempting to reach a skylight in the cathedral-high ceiling are interesting, especially given Nemo’s increasing desperation. That his efforts force him to destroy works of art, and there is nothing in this residence that isn’t some iteration of conspicuously expensive contemporary art, form another series of metaphors. Some are refined as the extended confinement drives Nemo mad, altering his perceptions of some works while creating his own, ahem, outsider art. Some are crass in their obviousness, as in the starving Nemo discovering to his dismay that the rotting fruit scattered across a bureau are painstaking reproductions of same in stone. As for what happens to the sunken bathtub, well, it needed to be included for the sake of closure. I guess.
Nemo becomes obsessed with the security channel on the penthouse’s television. When not trying to escape, he finds himself engrossed in the lives of the service staff he sees, particularly the winsome housekeeper (Eliza Stuyck) who sneaks smokes and sometimes vacuums just outside the door to his soundproofed prison. It leads to the, I further guess, inevitable surreal sequences that crop up when Nemo begins to go mad in earnest, a madness abetted by finding a first edition by William Blake that drives him to that ci-mentioned outsider art and to a monumentally pointless stand-up routine delivered to an empty room that fails to appreciate his efforts. And gets told off as a result.
INSIDE’s many points are made more profound than they might otherwise be thanks to Dafoe. He brings an immediacy and drama to even the most quotidian observations, and keeps the situation of a man trapped by his own greed, and a supremely unfeeling technology, a compelling odyssey.