What three things would you save from a house fire? When everything gives in to destruction, what must be preserved?
These questions begin and end Vasilis Katsoupis’s directorial debut “Inside,” and suggest a meditation on what it means to own something, the time after loss and the depth of survival. But the moments in between dissolve into a futile, grueling 105-minutes that have little to say about the introspective questions Katsoupis poses.
“Inside” is a one man show starring Willem Dafoe as Nemo, a high end art thief, who has found himself trapped in the luxe but austere penthouse of an art collector after the security system malfunctions. With no running water, minimum food and a temperature system switching from sweltering to Siberian, Nemo needs to find a way to break out and ultimately survive. He’s creative, fashioning anything he can find into means for escaping, but every man has his breaking point. Alone with nothing but unsympathetic art on the walls, Nemo struggles to maintain his sanity, slowly losing himself in a prison of concrete and interior cruelty.
In the periphery of one man’s mental breakdown is a musing on the nature of creation and ownership. As Nemo destroys the space — ripping into walls, jerry-rigging furniture, eating pet fish — the careful framing and cinematography attempt to behold his mess as sublime. Some shots are a visual feast, offering minute details in omnium-gatherums worth a close look before zooming out to a greater whole. In one of his attempts to escape, Nemo stacks numerous pieces of furniture — desk on bed on table — into a staggering tower climbing towards a skylight. The camera knows to linger, granting the audience ample time to dissect a structure that equates more than its individual parts.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the film itself. “Inside” has a lot going for it — an enticing premise, an actor who can more than hold their own alone and an obvious passion from those involved — but the story collapses in on itself. For Katsoupis and screenwriter Ben Hopkins, the single-character chamber drama leaves their work nowhere to hide. What should be an opportunity for tight storytelling is instead filled to the brim with loosely threaded ideas; “Inside” fizzles out into nothing but a few interesting visuals in a sea of incoherent discord.
As Nemo explores more and more of the penthouse in search of an escape, the film opts to multiply the absurdities and abandon, rather than expand upon, what had already been established. Early on, Nemo becomes interested in one of the apartment staffers (Eliza Stuyck) after watching her over a security feed on the penthouse television. What could have been dissected in pursuit of a statement on creation through observation gets lost in the catalog of other half-pursued intellectual ploys. Even Dafoe, whose layered performance keeps the film from drowning in a lethargic repetition, cannot save “Inside” from its disarrayed inanity.
It is clear, however, that Katsoupis was deeply passionate about the project. Unlike the literal mold and excrement Nemo shares the penthouse with, “Inside” cannot be called sloppy from a technical standpoint. Tight shots on Dafoe scrambling in his selfmade squalor are paired with carefully crafted sound design, successfully immersing the audience into claustrophobic desperation and forthright psychosis.
What Katsoupis lacks as a director is any trust in the viewer. When the film isn’t vague and as lofty as the penthouse, Katsoupis holds his audience’s hand with key takeaways literally written on the walls, illuminated in neon signs or explained in voiceover. It’s clunky and inelegant, which could be argued as an intentional nod to the theme of “Inside” — art doesn’t need to be graceful to have something to say.
Even so, the feature doesn’t say much, as desperately as it seems to want to. Instead of achieving the desired profundity, “Inside” is an earnest yet insubstantial attempt at allegorizing creation by way of destruction. The film ends as a loose hodgepodge of abstractions, disappointing due to the potential of what could be. And unfortunately for Katsoupis, in the aftermath of the question posed at the start, you can’t give someone rubble and tell them it’s a house.