‘Inside’ reviews: Willem Dafoe ‘at the top of his game’ in ‘claustrophobic thriller’

On March 17 Focus Features released “Inside,” a psychological thriller that stars Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe as Nemo, an art thief trapped in a New York penthouse after his heist doesn’t go as planned. Locked inside with nothing but priceless works of art, he must use all his cunning and invention to survive. 

Critics are raving about Dafoe’s performance, despite mixed reception for the film overall. The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, which rates the movie fresh at 61%, states, “Inside might be a one-note drama that verges on an endurance test, but it does have Willem Dafoe going for it, which is nice.” Read our full review round-up below.

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Travis Hopson of Punch Drunk Critics writes, “Why is it that so many crime films are about art theft? It’s because the exploration of man’s desire to acquire art leads to an exploration of art itself. What is its purpose? Why are men so fascinated by it and covetous of it? And what will man do when that obsession is put up against the will to survive? These are questions tackled by director Vasilis Katsoupis and the answers embodied with physical intensity by Willem Dafoe in the claustrophobic thriller, ‘Inside,’ which recently made its world premiere at Berlinale.” Hopson continues, “Dafoe is at the top of his game as the appropriately-named Nemo, an art thief with a single-minded obsession to break into a swank Manhattan apartment to steal some Egon Schiele pieces. Looking lithe and strong, Dafoe appears to have dropped weight for the role. He moves stealthily throughout the film, like a master cat burglar.” In conclusion, “’Inside’ works as both a character study and a self-contained thriller, powered by Dafoe’s fierce performance. As Nemo wastes away in a prison of his own making, the art around him continues on. It endures, just as Dafoe continues to endure as one of our finest actors.”

Ben Rolph of AwardsWatch begins by noting “Vasilis Katsoupis’s debut feature is a claustrophobic psychological drama that features an unbridled Willem Dafoe performance. The Berlinale is the perfect debut platform for a film like ‘Inside’ as it has the mainstream star power to attract an audience but its intentions remain small and contained to the psychological study of human isolation and its effects. It’s bound to gain traction as it continues its festival run and eventual release, however, it’s possible that general audiences will get lost in its meandering nature.” Rolph adds, “It’s through Dafoe’s raw and committed performance that the film finds life. Dafoe perfectly embodies his locked-up character through the film’s many close-ups which accentuate his state of mind. Cinematographer Steve Annis’ use of wide shots featuring New York’s vast cityscape contradicts Egon’s solitude, this same isolating wide is repeated many times to showcase the accidental art installation that is slowly built up in an attempt to break through the apartment’s sky-facing windows.”

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Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian ponders, “Maybe the movie itself aspires to the cool, affectless chill of an unimaginably expensive piece of contemporary art.” The film is praised as a whole for the atmosphere that it creates, but it is Dafoe that, forgive the pun, steals the picture. “Well, this film is never dull and Dafoe has a martyred intensity and anchorite emaciation (I found myself thinking of his role as Scorsese’s ‘Christ’). Perhaps the point is that super-rich art investment is already a sterile spiritual prison. Or perhaps Katsoupis and Hopkins are suggesting something else: that while humanity decays and dies like Dafoe’s hermit thief, art carries on, persisting in its callous way – and even offers a kind of escape. It is a strange, enclosed experience: Dafoe’s mastery of the screen keeps it meaningful.”

David Rooney of  The Hollywood Reporter says, “There’s more than enough blurring of the lines between reality and dark fantasy, not to mention any conventional grasp of temporality, to position ‘Inside’ as a new entry in the Greek Weird Wave. But subtract the brutalist-chic design aesthetics and the meticulously curated art collection, both of which have major bearing on the unfolding psychological thriller, and you have an inverted take on familiar one-person survival dramas like ‘Cast Away’ or ‘All is Lost.’ How much you get out of the narrative feature debut of commercials director Vasilis Katsoupis will depend on your appetite for another of Willem Dafoe’s heady plunges into a character’s soul in torment…But even the formidable Dafoe at his most intense ultimately can’t stop ‘Inside’ from succumbing to its own narrowness, devolving into a self-reflexive portrait of soul-sucking isolation.” 

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