Passion of the Heist

Willem Dafoe’s Inside and the art of entrapment

Vasilis Katsoupis, Inside, 2023, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Nemo (Willem Dafoe).

THE SELF-PORTRAIT ISN’T THERE. Otherwise, the heist is going fine. Willem Dafoe has breached the penthouse, thwarted the alarm, located two fairly chaste but still pricey Schieles. There’s just one thing, though. The self-portrait: Dafoe can’t find it. In its place is a sort of picture-book orgy featuring an eerie likeness of the apartment’s owner. Time is running out. The “smart home” glitches and all the doors slam shut. Our hero is trapped, imprisoned, surrounded by priceless art, choice design, and an eight-figure view of Manhattan.

This is the premise of Vasilis Katsoupis’s Inside: A burglary gone wrong leaves a thief stuck in an ultraluxury unit with slim hope of rescue and a woefully understocked fridge. It’s billed as a survival flick, like an urban Cast Away (2000) or a reprise of Dafoe’s brilliant, pervy madness in Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse (2019), with a zeitgeisty class-war twist. He defecates in the home spa and makes meatballs of the tropical fish. Is he a hapless Robin Hood, trying to liberate these masterpieces from this rich guy’s sepulcher? Maybe—but it’s also clearly personal. He seems to know the owner from some past life, and you quickly get the sense that “inside” means not just indoors or in prison but inside job.

The real thrill of this caper is watching Willem Dafoe fill one hundred minutes of screentime with his singular, elastic body. Indeed, except for some odd flashbacks or hallucinations of an art opening and a housekeeper he creeps on the security cameras, it’s all Dafoe, all the time. There’s a particularly special moment which few other actors could have made interesting: Our thief is running so low on water, he decides to lick the frost from the freezer shelves. We’re treated to a long, icebox’s-eye view of his rapt pleasure, the sight of a man completely alone and uninhibited framed like a portrait, a white plastic frame within a frame.

He still can’t find the self-portrait. What could it mean? Inside is an allegory in the vein of grandiose auteurist visions like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother (2017) and Julia Ducournau’s Titane (2021), two films in which the “father” turns out to be God. The god of Inside isn’t so present—more the silent Catholic type than a chatty Evangelical deity—but the Pritzker Prize–winning architect who owns and possibly built the condo is a strong candidate. Symbolism abounds. There’s the descent into the HVAC Inferno where, marking the film’s first and second acts, the haywire computer starts roasting Dafoe alive before trying to freeze him out. There’s his desperate attempt to call for help by setting off the sprinkler system—the Deluge comes, everything gets soaked, yet the architect’s pad is so watertight that the super doesn’t notice. A pigeon slowly dies on the porch, showing the passage of time.

Vasilis Katsoupis, Inside, 2023, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Nemo (Willem Dafoe).

The art, too, is full of tedious symbols. The director hired Leonardo Bigazzi, a curator who often consults on films, to decorate the thief’s gilded cage. In the sheer absence of God, the artworks on the wall act as Dafoe’s castigators. Some are a little on the nose, like the Maurizio Cattelan C-print of a Milanese gallerist duct-taped to the wall, or a David Horvitz neon that reads, “All the time that will come after this moment.” Others are beguiling, like a Superstudio print of the Continuous Monument covering New York, or the watercolor of a nude splitting light into a rainbow by Francesco Clemente that the camera lingers on throughout the film. (A rainbow? Well, I suppose that is a biblical symbol!)

And yes, the self-portrait. Dafoe finds it, months into the heist, after prying open a closet to discover a dim, absinthe-tinted panic room. There’s also what looks like an original illuminated copy of William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell—placed on the chest of a creepy sculpture of the architect as a corpse. Dafoe, whose previous roles include both Jesus and Satan, here paraphrases Blake: “Man has no body distinct from the soul. Energy is the only life and is from the body. Energy is eternal delight.” The body is the soul’s self- portrait.

We know from a labored voiceover that Dafoe’s character is an artist, has been from a young age. In the first act he settles in enough to make some sketches of the housekeeper. In the last act he’s regressing to wall drawings, mad charcoal spirals; assemblage from steel nuts, rugs, and refuse. He’s gaunt and starving and living in a mystic level of squalor. His last gambit is to lash together a pile of modernist furniture with strips of upholstery and ascend this Babel to a massive skylight, an inverted stepped pyramid glowing in the sun. The film’s last shot is of the wrecked, empty room, and the skylight with its bottom panel missing. Did he escape? Did he die? In a movie with such faith in uncertainty, either outcome would be a continuity error.

Even contractually trapped in a cheesy art-world allegory of heaven and hell, Saint Willem can do no wrong. His character is supposed to find redemption in art, but it’s really his art, the severe cathedral of his talent as an actor, that redeems us, prisoners of an indulgent film. Dafoe played van Gogh in the 2018 Julian Schnabel movie, but Inside also recalls his bit part in another Schnabel-directed biopic, 1996’s Basquiat, where he climbs down a ladder and into the shot to confide to Jean-Michel that he’s not just a handyman, he’s an artist, too.

Inside opens in US theaters on March 10.