Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The set-up of Vasilis Katsoupis’ slickly but somewhat facilely resonant feature debut Inside is deceptively simple. A high-end art thief is helicoptered onto the roof of a luxury Manhattan high-rise and, with the aid of a techie accomplice, hacks into the security system of an absurdly opulent penthouse, owned by a high-end art collector who is evidently away for a season or two. The thief is targeting several of Egon Schiele’s signature vampy drawings and a singularly valuable self-portrait. (There may be a real-life hook for thinking this thief is half-noble: the Manhattan DA’s office recently seized three Schiele works of about a dozen that the Nazis are believed to have stolen from Jewish art collector Fritz Grünbaum, who was killed at Dachau in 1941.) He has seven minutes to gather up the lucre and get out. But the exit code the techie provides doesn’t work, they lose phone contact, and the thief has to figure out how to escape before someone finds him. Up to that point, the film looks to be a standard sardonic heist flick, of which there are of course dozens stretching three-quarters of a century from Huston and Siodmak to Kubrick and Melville to Lumet and Mann to Tarantino and Soderbergh. Then the movie gets allegorically existential, veering into the human-adrift category that includes All Is Lost, Cast Away, Moon, and The Road, among others.
The thief isn’t going to get out of that big, studiously cold, and ugly loft, and nobody is going to find him. The penthouse is sealed up tight as a Supermax prison physically and digitally. There’s not much food, the climate control system is dangerously wonky, and the plumbing has been disabled during the owner’s absence. The thief is compelled to go full survivalist. He slurps melted ice from the freezer, slaughters and eats exotic tropical fish from the aquarium, shits in the gigantic bathtub, and cannibalizes the furniture to build a tower to a skylight that seems the only plausible means of egress. When it gets too hot, he triggers the sprinkler system, subjecting the art to ruin. His only contact with the outside world is one-way demented, with a pigeon on the other side of the window and a housekeeper he periodically sees in a video feed. Or so we are led to believe – the narrative bleeds into and out of interior monologue, blurring what is real and what is fantasy as in a horrific version of Groundhog Day.
The frontal tropes here are richly but obviously nihilistic. Postmodern ultra-convenience is soulless and essentially inhumane. Reality is increasingly subjective and hermetic. Art commerce is fatuous. (He’s “inside” and look where it gets him.) Notwithstanding the thief’s one personal musing, twice intoned, that “art is for keeps,” it actually appears worthless and expendable when survival is at stake. Yet, in the throes of his despair and degradation, he is compelled to make art in the form of a large, expressionistic wall drawing and, arguably, that makeshift, MacGyver-esque tower to the skylight. The director and writer might have dispensed with the tired Nietzschean platitude about destruction being necessary to creation – whether earnestly or ironically, why say it? – on which the film ends, with a thud. But Willem Dafoe, with his uncanny balance of stoicism and sensitivity, is ideally suited to the thief’s larger role as a knowing, self-loathing everyman who traverses the expanse of human foible. The actor’s typically committed and nuanced performance – remember him in Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper – substantially redeems Katsoupis’ effort.
Inside, directed by Vasilis Katsoupis and Ben Hopkins. Distributed by Focus Features (US), 2023.
About the author: Jonathan Stevenson is a New York-based policy analyst, writer, and editor, contributing to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Politico, among other publications. He is a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint.