The famous screenwriter William Goldman likened writing to exiting from a pitch-black room. The screenwriter knows there’s a narrative way out, but its discovery is often experienced via struggle. Whether intended or not, Inside literalizes that feeling. The film places a man in a room surrounded by artistic inspiration and then watches as he works towards his masterpiece: escape.
That said, Inside itself is not a masterpiece. As directed by Vasilis Katsoupis, with a script from Ben Hopkins, it can only strive to be one. Air-dropped into an expansive penthouse apartment, an art thief (Willem Dafoe) is trapped in complete isolation after the security system malfunctions, locking him in. He has only his wits and the apartment’s contents to get him out. It’s a setup I’ve not quite seen before, but as the film stretches on, it becomes apparent Katsoupis’s story isn’t as clever as he thinks it is. For his part, Dafoe is game. Despite the fearsome solitude, his performance contorts to the various phases of the film, radiating determination and desperation in equal measure. Credit can go to the production design as well. This may be a film that lives and dies by the rules it creates, the problems it solves, and the ingenuity of its resolutions—and I’ll contend it lacks in those departments—but at least the space Dafoe is in happens to be worthy of study. It’s clear Katsoupis wants us to carefully consider it too. An opening monologue even foregrounds the notion that “art plays for keeps,” alluding to a central theme explored in the film that ultimately comes to mean little.
This becomes the true struggle of Inside. It recalls the stranded philosophy of All is Lost, but its busyness of intent—the foreboding artwork, the opaque visual clues, the narrative tip-toe towards some sort of class critique—confuse the issue. By the end, it’s clear Katsoupis believes in his film and the power of its outgoing message. Given the choice, however, I’d advise looking at something else.