Willem Dafoe is one of the few actors who can command the screen all by himself. That’s precisely what he does in Inside, a one-man movie that allows him to give an awe-inspiring tour de force performance. In fact, in a long, acclaimed career, this might be the best work he’s ever done. It’s certainly up there with his Oscar-nominated turns in Platoon and The Florida Project. Watching a movie with a single character can sound daunting. How do you build tension when there’s nobody for the protagonist to interact with? Dafoe pulls it off by putting us in his character’s shoes as he endures an ordeal that initially seems inconvenient, then gradually become torturous.

Nemo is an art thief. He’s just broken into a spacious New York penthouse apartment whose owner is out of the country. It’s filled with at least $3 million worth of paintings. An unseen accomplice guides him via walkie-talkie. The alarm system is supposed to be easily disabled. Instead, it goes off, with a heavy door slamming shut, lights flashing, and an obnoxious beep repeating itself. Nemo gets the alarm off, only to come to the realization that he’s trapped inside. The thick door can’t be pried open, the windows can’t be broken, and the walls are soundproof, so no one can hear his screams for help. The guy on the walkie-talkie? He abandons Nemo as soon as the alarm rings. 

In a captivating twist, the entire internal computer systems malfunction, causing a variety of problems. The thermostat goes haywire, alternately heating and cooling the apartment to extreme degrees. There’s no gas to use the oven. The toilet doesn’t flush. The spigots don’t work, nor does the phone. Conditions become increasingly brutal. His only reprieve from misery comes from watching a cleaning woman on the security camera. While no specific time frame is given, you can tell that the story unfolds over the course of weeks.

Dafoe takes us through the gamut of emotions Nemo experiences. At first, things don’t seem too bad. The digs are luxurious. He sits back and semi-enjoys them. As his surroundings become hostile, though, the thief’s sense of comfort deteriorates, turning to panic, then existential dread. His sense of sanity erodes. Dafoe conveys this transition palpably and credibly, allowing us to go through the torment in a vicarious manner. The impact is incredibly suspenseful. Director Vasilis Katsoupis uses camera work and framing to turn the space ominous, but his star most fully sells the horror of the situation. 

Inside isn’t solely a survival tale. It’s thematically about art. Using objects found around the penthouse, Nemo erects a structure he can climb to reach a skylight in the ceiling. His jerry-rigged scaffolding comes to resemble a modern art sculpture, inspired by desperation. And by changing, manipulating, and ruining the apartment in his efforts to escape, he becomes a virtual work of art himself – a portrait of a man battling long-term isolation and confinement. That provocative approach provides added meaning. Although never outright stated in the film, you can read it that the owner has rigged the internal controls to fail if the alarm is tripped, thereby allowing him to use the person/people trapped inside as his own personal canvas. 

You will feel uncomfortable watching Inside, as you’re intended to. Katsoupis has made a very different kind of thriller. In fact, I felt more tense at this movie than I have at many of the other thrillers I’ve seen in the past six months. Thanks to the incomparable Willem Dafoe, it’s a first-rate freak-out that makes you shudder thinking about how you’d react in the same scenario. 

out of four

Inside is rated R for language, some sexual content, and nude images. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.