Inside, starring Willem Dafoe almost entirely by himself, sounds like Castaway meets The Thomas Crown Affair. Focus Features’ official synopsis describes it as “the story of Nemo, an art thief trapped in a New York penthouse after his heist” goes wrong. With him “locked inside with nothing but priceless works of art, he must use all his cunning and invention to survive” his ordeal. While that description is technically true, though, it’s also entirely inaccurate. The film is far less conventional; it’s a claustrophobic psychological drama that has more in common with an art installation than other survival or heist films. That makes for an interesting viewing experience, but not an especially good moviegoing one.
Because Inside isn’t as concerned with being a film as it is an art exhibit, it never decides what kind of movie it actually is. And as an art exhibit it refuses to embrace both its best ideas and its leading man’s entire palette of skills.
The start of Inside is essentially a horror movie. A strange (maybe intentional?) malfunction in the smart home’s operating system locks down the penthouse he’s robbing. With the burglary ruined and no way for him to get out, his unseen cohort on a walkie talkie abandons him to his fate. That fate turns out to be an extended imprisonment with little food, little water, a broken heating and cooling system, and no way of letting someone know he’s trapped.
With its unsettling score, rising temperatures, and isolated protagonist, Inside initially feels like a spiritual companion to The Shining. (Just seemingly without the ghosts.) The film’s ostentatious penthouse is certainly up to the challenge of filling the role of the Overlook. It’s a proverbial character unto itself, and a pretty interesting villain. It seems to actively hate him while continually ripping away any hope he has of breaking out. And what makes his situation even crueler is how much he loves what it represents. Nemo steals art less for the money and more because he loves it.
With its star, the film has everything it needs to deliver the type of engrossing madness the beginning seems to promise. Who wouldn’t want to see Willem Dafoe slowly succumbing to his isolation? But unfortunately director Vasilis Katsoupis (who co-wrote the film with Ben Hopkins) instead opts to slow things down rather than build on that tension. That decision undercuts the natural horror of the situation and transforms the movie into something very different. Instead it becomes more of a slowly developing psychological thriller.
And I do mean slowly. The first half of Inside features far too many sequences that are overly deliberate if not downright painful. There’s far too much unnecessary time spent on the specifics of his survival. But that only becomes a huge problem later when the slow build doesn’t pay off. The most maddening thing about this movie is that it refuses to fully unleash Willem Dafoe. No surprise that he’s good in spite of that. Even when the movie is boring he’s not. But his casting and the film’s premise naturally implies a trip to the Willem Dafoe fireworks factory. Instead it mostly makes us hang out at Poochie’s pretentious penthouse.
The film does get into some interesting, weird ideas in the second half. They’ll make you question how much—if any—of what you’re seeing is really happening to Nemo. (Some of those questions you’ll ask earlier if you’re paying attention.) And in addition to its horror and survival elements the film is also part spiritual exploration, part treatise on art and artist, and part reflection on the meaning of life and what’s important both while we’re here and after we’re gone.
Unfortunately all of those intriguing ideas are woefully underdeveloped. The film is too long for what it is, but not long enough for everything it wants to do. It’s also at its best when it’s at its strangest and most surreal, but it never gets weird enough. Inside always pulls back when you want it to go further, teasing you that something more interesting is just out of reach. (Which, in fairness, fits into a major theme I can’t discuss without spoiling the film. But what it gains by doing that it not nearly worth what it loses in actual storytelling.) And since the film holds its star back despite knowing what he’s capable of with such a role— hello The Lighthouse!—in nearly every way that matters it’s consistently more frustrating than engrossing.
The one thing the film does well—which its official poster accurately conveys—is serve as a type of art installation. Nemo and his isolation is the paint, the penthouse the canvas, us the visitors to the gallery he’s spending in isolation, and the subject “a rumination of life and art.” I just wish that this installation wasn’t so abstract. It’s easy to find meaning and purpose in many elements of the story. And like a good piece of art it gives you a lot to think about. But some broader, more deliberate strokes would have gone a long way into making the entire presentation feel more purposeful. Because despite what its director wanted to make, this is still a movie. A greater focus on fewer ideas would have made for a much better one. As would a more unhinged Dafoe and an embrace of its most bizarre elements.
Inside is worth seeing if you love Willem Dafoe, but if you do try to see it in a theater when it arrives there on March 17. It will help if you’re “trapped” in there with him, away from the easy distractions/reprieve of your phone or laptop. If you opt to wait and stream it at home, though, watch it late at night in a dark room with your electronics put away for the same reasons. Neither method will save the film from its many flaws, but like a good museum, the way you experience Inside will make it look better.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.