As with every generation, there is a separation in what’s considered normal or acceptable as one comes up into adulthood. Growing up, there was a sense that homes should be filled with photographs of posed family and pieces of art, statues collected from travel, framed portraits or landscapes on walls, mementos of various types depicting scenes or ideas that resonated within my parents, my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents. In my house now, we eschew that tradition for works of art depicting favorite scenes in film, autographed music memorabilia, and, yes, family photos but more candid. Though it doesn’t seem to be in line with my family’s sense of high art or class sensibility, our form of decoration nonetheless brings us joy in part of what they provide us in terms of emotional connection and memorial sustenance. This is the power of art, transforming moments in time, capturing feelings of association, and making them something we can gaze upon, snapped back into a moment of joy, of sorrow, of triumph, and of grief. What we surround ourselves with carries meaning and weight, conveying who we are and what we value. Enter director Vasilis Katsoupis’s dramatic thriller INSIDE which asks the question: what is art really worth in relation to survival?
Art thief Nemo (Willem Dafoe) invades the smart home of a wealthy collector intent on stealing specific works. With help from the outside, he disconnects the security system, moves through the space with clear intent and purpose, bagging framed pieces and statues as he goes. But when it’s time to leave, a malfunction institutes a lockdown and Nemo is unable to escape. Stuck in a high-rise apartment, surrounded by incredible works of art, Nemo must use every tool at his disposal to figure out a way to escape from this luxurious home-turned gilded-prison.
So let’s start with the obvious and work our way … inside.
At first, the naming of Dafoe’s character is a bit cheeky seeing as the actor lent his voice to Gill, a Moorish idol, an Indo-Pacific fish who helps lead character Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould) escape from peril and get back into the ocean. One might even say that Dafoe’s Nemo is a different form of shark bait, except instead of a braces-laced young lady spelling doom for all whom come under her care, it’s time which is waiting to feast on Dafoe’s Nemo if he cannot escape. This, of course, brings us to Nemo’s more likely namesake, the fictional Jules Verne character known to helm the Nautilus, a submarine. The character is considered ahead of his time (1870’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is technically science fiction) and this Nemo is similarly educated and adept, prone to cool-headedness as he assesses his situation and his resources as he formulates a way out. The film is, essentially, a one-person tale and Dafoe is mesmerizing in the role. He already possesses an expressive physicality and the way that he utilizes that, in concert with cinematographer Steve Annis’s (Color Out of Space) capturing of the performer within the space, one tends to feel as if they are on an expedition run afoul, the captain stranded on an island with little more than their wits and luck. Annis makes sure that we see the strain, the tautness of his skin over time, the physical manifestation of pressure as Nemo contends with a potentially life-ending situation. Nemo is in a high-value, exceptionally modern smart home, surrounded by the very things he prizes, yet is unable to leave, turned basically into a spirit housed in a corporeal form, trapped in modernity.
Let’s take this further. The notion that Nemo is transformed from a physical self into nothingness by looking at his name, a Latin word meaning “no one,” implying that our lead is absent identity before he’s even trapped. The script from Ben Hopkins (In Search of Monsters), born from a story idea by Katsoupis, offers very little about Nemo for the audience to grab onto except for his love of art. We’re able to derive a portrait of a person based on the choices the audience observes him making, but all of it is anchored in inference, not stated fact, making anything we think based solely on our own interpretation. How like art itself where the intention of the artist and the response from the world may be gulf-like rather than in-sync. Inside this house, he is what he possesses, what he finds, what he makes useful, with all focus set on getting out. If we examine his methods, if we pay close attention to how he approaches the problems, he seems incredibly logic-based and disconnected. And yet, the further into his forced stay, the greater the need to express himself comes out, especially as his only means of interaction with anyone is either in his own mind, with a pigeon that lands on the patio, or with the people he can see through surveillance monitors on the property. Through his creations, made using various objects of seemingly little importance, who Nemo is presents himself — someone with artistic vision who is dying due to the lack of engagement with society. He’s on an island in the form of a window-filled cage, highly visible yet unseen and unnoticed by everyone else. Art is what brought him in and it’s art that offers him the taste of freedom.
Prominently displayed in a variety of scenes is a piece by artist David Horvitz, specifically a neon light piece that states “All the time that will come after this moment.” It’s one of many artistic pieces in the film, some displayed more obviously than others, but this one speaks to some of the ideas within Katsoupis’s work regarding the moments in our lives. Each one, like this one, this one, this one, this one (and so forth) come at the expense of all the moments before them. Here’s the thing, though; each room, each place where art could be, the owner of this home has placed art to be enjoyed in any moment, so much so that it’s as if Nemo’s been trapped within an art gallery. Since we aren’t given much information on the target of the robbery, let’s consider what we know and what it may mean to the larger point of INSIDE. The place is filled with a variety of expensive pieces of tech, conveying a specific worldview regarding what’s valuable, but also how one protects what they value. If we take the place as it’s appears to us, the home is little more than segmented moments adorned with art that bring the owner joy but would, perhaps, be better for the world if not kept privately. What moment is Nemo in, locked in this place with little ability to get out? What moment are you in and how do you choose to escape it? To move on to the next moment? Are we restricted by the things we buy, the objects we gather, the art we treasure, or are we freed by them all in some way physically, emotionally, or metaphorically? What do we give up by consuming? How many moments do we throw away? These are questions the film can only answer (directly or through personal inference) for Nemo, but it pushes the audience to consider them all nonetheless.
INSIDE is likely to be oddly polarizing upon its release. It’s neither obvious nor opaque in its ideas, but if the audience doesn’t give themselves to the confinement, to understand that the film is playing on several layers of ideas, it may be difficult to connect with in any way. If it does anything on the surface, it will likely get people to think about what they would grab in a fire, a question Nemo answers for himself to us in his opening monologue, a tactic that establishes his values before we even see his face. For those who connect more deeply, there’s an opportunity to consider what we give our time to, where we focus our attention, and, perhaps most importantly, why would we surround ourselves with things that separate us from our humanity in order to keep them safe. To find that answer, you have to do more than consider it for yourself: you have to look inside.
In theaters March 17th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Focus Features INSIDE webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.