Few things are sexier than an art heist. This fact, and my natural fondness for parodies of the contemporary art world, made the plot of Inside (2023) sound practically mouthwatering: In Vasilis Katsoupis’s directorial debut, Willem Dafoe stars as Nemo, a thief whose plan to rob the collection of a multimillionaire backfires spectacularly when he finds himself trapped in an empty Manhattan penthouse. The film seemed poised to deliver on its tacit promise of unmasking the cruel emptiness of beautiful objects, and I was prepared to devour it like an expensive, truffle-laced canapé at a VIP-only museum opening. Instead, I found myself cringing at Inside’s tragically forced attempt to capture white-cube gallery ennui — a failure of imagination that haunts so much media premised on romanticized perceptions of visual art’s mystique.
The film begins with Nemo recalling his response when he was asked, as a child, which three things he would salvage from a fire: his cat, his sketchbook, and an AC/DC album. “My cat died, music fades, but art is for keeps,” he reflects in an ominous voiceover as he slithers expertly up and down the halls of the luxury apartment searching for the heist’s prized pig, a $3 million Egon Schiele self-portrait. He eventually gives up — the coveted piece is nowhere to be found — and tries to exit the premises, but in doing so triggers a malfunction in the home’s security system that traps him inside the sparingly furnished, gray-washed unit. The doors are suddenly locked, his buddy on the walkie-talkie has bailed, the windows are shatterproof, the tap isn’t running, and the HVAC has gone haywire, yo-yoing between below-zero and sweltering temperatures.
Nemo spends the next unbearably long 95 minutes sourcing food and drink of increasingly pathetic quality (pasta softened in a bowl of water, a live aquarium fish); spiraling into delirium; and doodling on the walls in a style that I can only describe as Raymond Pettibon meets every ten-year-old kid in a horror movie. Occasionally he pontificates nonsensically to himself and spies on the building’s cleaner, whom he has nicknamed Jasmine, via a live security camera feed. But mostly, he expends what little energy he has left in him building a Babylon-esque tower of stacked furniture and objects in the hopes of reaching the only plausible means of escape, a series of skylight panels on the penthouse’s absurdly high ceilings. It’s very “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” without the climax to justify the build-up.
What the film gets right is its mise en scène, largely courtesy of production designer Thorsten Sabel and curator Leonardo Bigazzi: The hell that envelops Nemo is icy, sparse, and expensive in a way that exudes the loneliness of being in love with things, not people. Some artworks in the apartment, like David Horvitz’s neon-text installation “all the time that will come after this moment” (2019), convey this aspirational dispassion. Others embrace the opposite sentiment, like Brazilian painter Maxwell Alexandre’s massive canvas “Se eu fosse vocês olhava pra mim de novo” (“If I were you, I’d look at me again”) (2018) from his ongoing series Pardo é Papel, glorious portraits of Black individuals in moments of joy or prosperity. But alas, not a single one of these precious beauties is of use to Nemo in survival mode. At one point, he uses a small sculpture to pry a pantry door open (is it art, or is it functional?!), but that’s the extent of it. I know there is a lesson here somewhere about the vacuousness of the art market or the claustrophobia of exhibition spaces — I just don’t care. I am too preoccupied with more immediate and earthly concerns, such as the question of how not a single soul heard the penthouse alarms go off.
Especially in the hands of a virtuoso like Dafoe, Nemo’s character — a man held captive by the subject of his infatuation — could have been fascinating to watch. It’s too bad there’s no story for him to be in. The trials and tribulations faced by our protagonist pile up monotonously like a list of events, never coalescing into a proper narrative. I found myself experiencing the same dread as when an acquaintance at a party begins a rambling anecdote that I know will have no punchline. I understand Inside isn’t trying to be a traditional art-heist movie, and I wasn’t expecting a car chase. But must we necessarily dispose of all our storytelling expectations in the name of experimentation? Couldn’t something happen, anything at all?
Perhaps that is the point, in which case Inside presents an unforgivably superficial take on the art world that is mocking without being critical. In this way, the film manages to be far more pretentious than the elements of Nemo’s sleek prison — the tiny framed Schieles; the smart home equipped with a talking refrigerator that suggests an omelette aux fines herbes; and even the line “I’ve got a Pritzker Prize, what the fuck have you done?,” which Nemo jeers at a portrait of the owner.
At one point during the arduous final stretch, some 17 minutes before the credits, my partner suggested turning off the television. I pushed back. We had already come this far, I said, invoking the admittedly far-fetched possibility of a brilliant denouement. “That’s called the sunk cost fallacy,” he retorted. I won’t tell you how it ends, but he was right.