If one were to conduct a scientific poll of which actors the average moviegoer would pay to watch reading the phonebook, I imagine Willem Dafoe would be sitting right at the top of the list. Dafoe is one of our most distinctively out-there thespians, his toothy grin and wizened croak among the most unmistakable in the industry. He’s the rare “crazy guy” character actor who seems like he’d be pleasant company to have a beer with– a Cage with self-awareness, a Glover without the persona, a Walken who can pass for human. He’s as at home in tentpole superhero films as he is working with Lars von Trier or David Lynch. He convincingly played Jesus Christ in a film by one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and he is, to the best of my knowledge, the only actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for playing a vampire. I could watch him for hours, and I know that I’m not the only one.
This truism was certainly calculated into the production of Inside, the narrative debut of documentary filmmaker Vasilis Katsoupis. Even more than The Lighthouse, Inside delivers the highest concentration of Dafoe for your moviegoing dollar: for the duration of its runtime it features Dafoe, and only Dafoe, slowly going insane inside a locked apartment. It is, in short, a gift, and I am delighted that it exists.
The setup is simple. Dafoe plays a seasoned art thief (“Nemo” is Latin for “Nobody,” and is presumably used to convey the character’s lack of identity, though I suppose it could also be a reference to one of Dafoe’s most widely-seen performances). In the film’s opening moments he rapells into the spacious high-rise apartment of a wealthy architect and art collector, bagging with ruthless efficiency a half dozen or so of the victim’s most valuable pieces. As he makes his getaway, however, he triggers the security system, locking down the apartment in the process. In silencing the alarm Nemo accidentally damages the “smart” thermostat, which proceeds to cycle up and down between the two extremes of its settings. With no running water, limited food, and the apartment’s owner on a business trip to Kazakhstan, Nemo is forced to survive by his wits– and try to hang onto his sanity– in his hermetically sealed, ultramodern tomb.
My biggest fear going into Inside was that Katsoupis would chicken out of this wonderfully simple premise– that he would use flashbacks or a mid-film twist to expand the stage beyond the apartment’s four walls. Thankfully, he sticks to his guns: Dafoe enters the apartment within seconds of the opening credits, and apart from a brief dream sequence around the midpoint, we stay there with him for the long haul. By the end, we share Nemo’s sense that not only is escape impossible, but that there may not be a world outside the apartment at all.
This would obviously be a gamble were the film anchored on a different leading man (I can easily imagine a forgettable, low-budget version of Inside starring Karl Urban or Frank Grillo, or an excruciating version starring Ryan Reynolds), but it’s an ideal vehicle for Dafoe. The camera treats Dafoe’s craggy face and sinewy torso as a location on par with the apartment itself, exploring it like the face of some distant planet in a planetarium show; the fact that it’s not being released in IMAX feels like a lost opportunity. What’s more, few actors can descend into madness as convincingly or as entertainingly as Dafoe. The fun, of course, begins as Nemo starts to truly lose his marbles: he develops parasocial relationships with the people he views milling about the building’s lobby on the security camera; he performs elaborate, nonsensical standup comedy routines to no one; he scrawls terrifying murals in the walls and reconstructs the various objets d’art into new configurations (he is, as the meme goes, something of an artist himself). In one of his most quintessentially Dafovian moments, he gives detailed instructions to a resting pigeon to deliver a message to his partner in burglary, punctuating with a barking “HAH?… HAH?… HAH?!” It’s not that Dafoe delivers this monologue better than any other actor could; it’s that no other actor would think to do it at all.
As a claustrophobic thriller, the most curious thing about Inside is how deliberately un-claustrophobic it feels. These are not the closed, cluttered quarters of something like Don’t Breathe, but rather one of those spacious, minimalist-chic apartments currently favored by the very wealthy (as a person of limited means, I’ve always found this trend faintly offensive on both an aesthetic and a moral level; if I ever strike it rich, my house is going to look like a cross between the Gardner Museum and Pee-wee’s Playhouse). The terror comes not from limited mobility, but from just how little stuff there is to work with, and how thoroughly useless “smart” technology becomes when it’s severed from the grid (in an amusing runner, the only device which continues to function perfectly is a sensor which blasts “Macarena” when the refrigerator door is held open for too long). It’s a classic “my kingdom for a horse” situation: Nemo is surrounded by the haul of his dreams, yet has to stick his mouth over the automatic sprinklers on the houseplants just to survive.
The economy of Inside does get the better of it somewhat at the end, which comes so abruptly that the end credits almost feel like a punchline; it could do with one final scene to provide, if not necessarily closure, then at least catharsis. A closing monologue from Dafoe (expanded from his mission statement at the beginning of the film) suggests an intended commentary on the world of fine art, but exactly what the film is trying to say is a bit unclear. The art on display, incidentally, is mostly real (the credit roll begins with full gallery notes for each piece, under the header “The Inside Collection,” before moving onto the cast and crew), but this may be a case where the film would have been better served by a bit of artifice. Had the works of art been devised by a single production designer, they might have provided a bit of biting satire, and worked more in concert towards the structure of the film itself (think of the intricate dollhouse worlds crafted by Hitchcock for his single-location thrillers). It’s refreshing to see a film take the art world seriously, but Inside could have perhaps done with a bit less reverence and a bit more bite.
Make no mistake, though: all of this would have been gravy. I’m here, as I assume you are, to see Willem Dafoe go crazy, and Inside is an instant inductee to the Willem Dafoe Going Crazy Hall of Fame. This is a film precisely calibrated toward the strengths of its lead, every bit as much as Tár was for Blanchett or Uncut Gems was for Adam Sandler. And Dafoe, needless to say, is in his element, sinking his teeth into a nearly wordless script that would leave any other actor at sea. Inside is far from a feel-good movie, but I had a smile on my face the entire time. Willem Dafoe is a national treasure, and Inside gives him a long overdue gallery exhibition.
dir. Vasilis Katsoupis
Opens Friday, 3/17 @ Capitol Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and AMC Boston Common