Oh, art. Ain’t it a beautiful thing? Through the objective fact that almost anything created in the name of art can become subjective is both a blessing and a curse to the creator and the audience. What the creator sees as engrossing and thought-provoking could be viewed through an audience member as stilted and forgettable. Is there a right answer when it comes to taking in any piece of art? No clue, and it’s not really for me to make that blanket judgement, but as a film that grapples with certain notions of “art” and what it can bring to its witness (or even take away), INSIDE gets lost in its own obliqueness to really get an audience member to care what, if anything, its about.
Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis and written by Ben Hopkins, INSIDE quickly positions itself as a vessel for star Willem Dafoe to see if he can hold an entire movie down with just himself — though, like most “one-man shows”, INSIDE doesn’t make it to the finish line in that regard, opting to break Dafoe’s solo act with other characters that quickly flit in and out. As it goes, Dafoe plays a nameless thief trapped in a penthouse that’s as beautiful as it is annoyingly art-centered. After those first 15 minutes or so of set-up, the rest of INSIDE sticks with Dafoe as his character tries and tries and tries and tries again to get out of his well-furnished prison.
“One man show” movies always hold promise, and INSIDE is no different. After all, of all the performers you’d want to see be put in a room by themselves, Willem Dafoe would be one of them — and if anything else, INSIDE delivers on that promise. For its nearly two-hour run, the performer plays all the notes he’s known for: a slightly off-kilter coolness soon overcome with eye-catching frenzy. The usual professional, Dafoe can do a lot with a little and this film seems to be intent on proving that statement true as it brings out the usual “isolated indvidual in a desolate setting” cliches for the actor to work with. You’ll see Dafoe yell at walls, grunt and moan, shit, plan and fail and lash out at nothing and no one, and get various moments of thinking he’ll get out only to be proven woefully wrong. Dafoe can do all these performances in his sleep, and as a showcase it’s certainly a strong reminder of the unique way the performer can grab your attention with just the darting of his eyes, but INSIDE teeters as a whole film, as flimsy and scrapped together as Dafoe’s various attempts at getting out.
There is undeniable craft here, though; at least when speaking about the production aspect. In sight and sound, Katsoupis is intent on giving his penthouse from Hell an aggressive and at times, mischievous, personality. The production team crafts an impeccable set here with the penthouse, in all its sharp angles and vacuous halls of grey and white creating a blank canvas for Dafoe’s character to get lost in. The sound team, too, should get props for making every pang of the building, whether it’s Dafoe throwing something against its increasingly tight walls or the shrill cries of a random alarm going off, give off a malicious vibe. With Steve Annis’ cinematography, INSIDE is almost always an eye-catching movie, but at a certain point, as Katsoupis and Hopkins struggle to lead Dafoe’s character in any sort of direction, narratively or emotionally, the film becomes a static painting.
The film certainly seems to be aiming at some interesting themes such as the true value of art or the cost of making it, but honestly, for this viewer, the film doesn’t delve deep enough into these themes in any really interesting way. All that’s left is an exercise in twiddling your thumbs with Dafoe while waiting for something interesting to happen. It also doesn’t help that Dafoe’s character is hardly that — which may be an intentional decision — but it makes it hard to really feel for the guy when there’s hardly any insight or anything interesting about any of the stuff he says or does.
When the ending finally arrives, it feels like not only a blessing for Dafoe’s mangled character but for the audience as well. Maybe one needs to sit with INSIDE to really find its exciting meanings and developments. Maybe it does say something truly mind-blowing about something. I wouldn’t know. Like Dafoe’s character, after one sitting, I’m about ready to leave the theater. And I don’t think I’d like to come back.