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Inside – Film Review

inside film review poster
inside film review

As much as we would like it to be, this is not a film adaptation of the 2016 Playdead video game. Willem Dafoe as the kid from Inside would have been something to see. Instead, it’s Willem Dafoe playing an art burglar, and we are almost disappointed.

Inside is one of the subgenre of movies that is set in a single, claustrophobic location for the entirety of its runtime. Buried, Phone Booth and Locke are the most commonly cited examples, but we’d encourage you to watch The Platform, Cube, Exam and Oxygen too. For whatever reason – the constraints it puts the writers under, most likely – it’s a subgenre we love. Once we found out that Inside was joining that elite club, we became vastly more interested.

It’s a brilliant concept. Willem Dafoe plays Nemo (slightly too on-the-nose naming there). As mentioned, he’s a high-class art burglar, only interested in paintings that fetch eight figures on the open market. There’s a fantastic scene at the start of the movie as he grumbles that a self-portrait, the real mark for this burglary, is missing, so he has to resort to stealing the less interesting art pieces. 

He’s broken into the penthouse suite of a renowned artist, and it’s clear that this artist is awash with cash. The modern furnishings, outlook onto the city and sprawling studio flat make that abundantly clear. But something is wrong. Not only is that high-value portrait missing, but an alarm trips soon after Nemo arrives. All of the doors bolt down and the heating begins to rise alarmingly. None of the air conditioning terminals are working, and Nemo is stuck.

Immediately, Inside has fun with the idea that Nemo’s cage is so glittery. He has a fridge to raid, but that fridge only has caviar and other garnishes in it, and it plays the sodding Macarena whenever he opens it. He dearly needs water, but there’s only a fish tank with exotic saltwater fish inside. It’s a case of luxury, luxury everywhere and not a drop to drink.

Nemo needs a plan, fast, because the owner could return at any moment. But that urgency shifts as the movie progresses: the owner isn’t coming back any time soon, so the tone changes to something else. It’s another cracking card that Inside has to play.

Both Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, The Lighthouse) and director Visilis Katsoupis (My Friend Larry Gus) are on top form here. Willem always looks like the weight of the world is buckling him, and his Nemo is no different. But rather than play the character through histrionics that would have been justified, his reactions are measured – exactly what you might expect from a high-class cat burglar. There’s an emblematic scene towards the end of the movie when he gets precious relief from something that has been bugging him for a long, long time, and rather than jig with joy, he’s clearly overtaken by peaceful bliss. Willem Dafoe is rarely anything less than wonderful, and so it goes here.

There’s real art and poise in the direction, too. The camera hunts around for beauty and horror in equal measure, as we see Willem Dafoe’s Gollum-like presence trying to find comfort in the sharp-angled interior of the flat. The owner’s various art pieces stare gloomily at Nemo, with a collage and a photo of an aeroplane staircase both adding poignancy to what is happening.

Where Inside gets undone is in the ending. It’s a common problem for these kinds of ‘locked box’ movies. They’re often accompanied by a mystery to solve, and the answer to that mystery needs to be satisfying. Equally, the captured person needs to find a way out, and that, too, needs to be climactic and ingenuous. It’s a lot of emphasis to put on one part of the movie.

Inside opts for a different approach than most. It’s most interested in the human condition: what happens when a person is exposed to the trials that Nemo is exposed to? Films like Buried tend to waft away these questions and focus on the scenario instead, but Inside embraces them. Nemo dreams and hallucinates to the point that we don’t quite know what is illusory or real. It’s clear that some part of the situation is deliberate, a trap perhaps, but Inside is non-committal about just how much of it is. It can be unsatisfying to not know, since the answer could just be in Nemo’s head.

By focusing more on the stresses and strains, as Nemo is tortured by the jail he’s locked in, the mystery and method of exit get increasingly sidelined. When they are finally solved, after a fever dream of compounding hallucinations, it feels anticlimactic. The problem is quickly overcome and the film is done. 

Perhaps it was our own expectations that were the problem. Inside sold us on a trap, and a clever individual looking to wriggle out of it. Wrapped around it was the question of ‘is he being played?’. That premise, that ‘game’ hooked us. We were eager to see that game play out, with ingenuity defeating a best-laid plan. Perhaps our experience of Buried, Cube and the rest led us to this expectation. It’s not you, it’s us, Inside.

While some fault might be our own, we can’t help but feel that some accountability lies with Inside. You can almost feel the train-car’s wheels shifting to a different track roughly midway through the movie. Faced with a problem to solve, Inside instead gets distracted with one man’s descent into madness. The movie it becomes is a fine movie, one we would watch, but it’s not the one we were promised nor wanted to watch at that time. With a sudden jolt, Inside moved from intense focus to a meandering lack of focus, and that jolt meant we never quite re-engaged with the movie. With a premise this good and acting this fine, it’s something of a waste.

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inside-film-review<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Willem Dafoe is peerless</li> <li>Killer locked-box premise</li> <li>Direction is gorgeous</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>It can’t stick the landing, unfortunately</li> <li>Very little is paid off</li> <li>Needs some logical leaps</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Purchased by TXH</li> <li>Running time and release date - 1hr 45mins | 2023 </ul>
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