'Inside' Review: Tortured artist, meet tortured man

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'Inside' Review: Tortured artist, meet tortured man
Willem Dafoe stars as an art thief who gets trapped in a penthouse in this drama.

by Amy Nicholson

NEW YORK, NY.- The art thief (a brutish Willem Dafoe) trapped in a megamillionaire’s extravagant loft knows the value of the bronze wedge he’s damaging in a desperate attempt to pry open the door. It’s one of the few pieces he intended to steal from the smart home before its security pad failed and the exits locked shut. But Vasilis Katsoupis, the director of the stark survival thriller “Inside,” deliberately withholds that the makeshift crowbar is meant to be the Lynn Chadwick piece “Paper Hat,” last auctioned at 2.5 million pounds. Katsoupis prefers his moral challenge incalculable: Do we want the art to endure or the criminal?

Playing fair, the filmmaker also refuses to share details about the burglar. Blessedly, there are no flashbacks to the robber’s mother, no panic about a spouse or cat, and not much voice-over aside from a couple of lines establishing that the man once fancied himself an artist, too. I wouldn’t have known his name was Nemo if not for the end credits — good thing, as I’d have giggled when he made sashimi of the tropical fish.

The logic behind Nemo’s captivity doesn’t gel. (Alarm sirens screech with not one visit from the security desk? Whom do they summon? Batman?) Katsoupis and screenwriter Ben Hopkins aren't concerned with making a credible heist caper. Katsoupis is more of a snotty provocateur with the elegance to posture as deep. He sneers at the rich, stocking the stony apartment with futile luxuries that give it the feel of a pharaoh’s tomb. The fridge contains only caviar, truffle sauce and booze; worse, it blares the “Macarena” to remind users to shut the door. (There are just three musicians on the film’s soundtrack — John Cage, Radiohead and those forbidden dancers Los Del Rio — the cinematic equivalent of a challenge on “Chopped.”) At the same time, the fritzing control system cuts the water and cranks the heat to 106 degrees. So-called smart tech — the practical opposite of fine art — is the closest thing to a villain. This computer isn’t self-aware like Hal 9000. Still, Stanley Kubrick would say he warned us not to hand our house keys to Siri.

Contemporary art curator Leonardo Bigazzi shrewdly selected the work that lines the walls. A photo of a duct-taped man mocks the prisoner’s plight. Overpriced neon tubes are there so we can look forward to seeing them smashed. Our knee-jerk guesstimations of worth are continually pranked. Take when a starving Nemo finds a few oranges. They’re moldy. (Worthless.) Wait, they’re concrete sculptures. (Insultingly worthless!) Nemo hurls the concrete at the windows. (Oh! Maybe they’re useful after all?) A hungry man can’t care that the oranges’ sculptor, Alvaro Urbano, intended to comment on cultural rot during the Francisco Franco dictatorship.

So it’s disruptive, and then cathartic, to watch Dafoe’s primal performance dominate this museum/mausoleum and force us to side with humanity. He’s perfectly cast in a part that calls for quietly whirring intelligence. Plus, he’s the rare movie star with the kind of brutal bone structure that would have inspired expressionist painter Egon Schiele — who has several pieces here — to grab his paintbrush. (The unpleasant close-up of Nemo’s bowel movements in the bathtub, however, only works as a nod to Andres Serrano.)

The film abandons its tempo somewhere after the eighth sunset, when the days begin to blend together and Katsoupis slathers on unnecessary hallucinations. When boredom sets in, we’re offered the silence to contemplate our own definition of art as Nemo the criminal evolves into Nemo the creator. His towering escape contraptions are tools. His haunting wall doodles are therapy. They’re both awarded as much reverence as everything with a price tag.

‘Inside’Rated R for nude and crude imagery. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. In theaters.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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