There are a lot of Finding Nemo references in Inside. Not only is the main character named Nemo and played by one of the voices from that movie (Willem Dafoe), he finds himself trapped in a place in a home with an aquarium full of specimens of the same fish from the Pixar classic. Where the animated film is about two clownfish who venture further from home than they ever imagined, this movie is about someone who’s trapped in someone else’s home and might die there.
Our man shows up wearing a maintenance company uniform to a New York City penthouse apartment belonging to some starchitect (Gene Bervoets), intending to steal four Egon Schiele paintings. When he enters the code to rearm the alarm system on his way out, he trips it instead, and the place locks down. He manages to disable the blaring siren and the harsh lights, but in doing so, he breaks the thermostat, so the apartment becomes blisteringly hot and then freezing cold. The automatic sprinkler system for the homeowner’s plants prevents Nemo from dying of thirst, but there isn’t much food in the place. (I would have eaten the dog food before I went for the aquarium fish.) Every time he opens the refrigerator, it plays “Macarena,” which is proof that the apartment is trying to kill him.
Somehow, Nemo’s tripping of the alarm brings neither the police nor building security. This movie is a metaphor about surviving on one’s own much like The Martian or Cast Away, but unlike those films, this metaphor is fatally flawed. Through the security video feed that comes up on the homeowner’s TV, Nemo sees a maid (Eliza Stuyck) vacuuming on the other side of the main door and knows he has no way of drawing her attention. He takes to piling the furniture in the center of the room in an attempt to reach the skylight, improvising a screwdriver out of planks of wood and a dime. The ambiguous ending makes sense, but it doesn’t pay off the way a conventional thriller would, and it doesn’t reach the poetic heights that the filmmakers are clearly hoping for.
Greek filmmaker Vasilis Katsoupis does show plenty of talent in this, his second feature. He and production designer Thorsten Sabel make the apartment into such a joylessly minimalist location that it seems hostile to its intruder — I wouldn’t live in this place no matter how much money I had. The art collection receives its own prominent section in the closing credits, and you will indeed spend much of this movie looking at the pieces on the walls. Dafoe is handling genuine Schieles, and the other works are by name artists like Maurizio Cattelan, Albrecht Fuchs, Francesco Clemente, and Alvaro Urbano. Meanwhile, the massive photo portrait of the homeowner was taken by Katsoupis himself, and Nemo ends up defacing it.
Holding the film together is Dafoe’s performance, as he tries to hold onto his sanity when even the hacker (voiced by Andrew Blumenthal) who instructed him via walkie-talkie how to get in has gone dark. This isn’t his best work — he was better in the similarly themed The Lighthouse — but he does terrifically as a problem-solver who slowly falls into despair in this deluxe, high-tech prison cell. Inside gives us someone dying of privation while surrounded by the trappings of wealth, and if that irony is a bit easy, Dafoe gives it a real presence.
Starring Willem Dafoe. Directed by Vasilis Katsoupis. Written by Ben Hopkins and Vasilis Katsoupis. Rated R.