Willem Dafoe’s Creative Destruction

It’s always a distinct pleasure to watch Willem Dafoe lose his mind. Whether he’s playing a schizophrenic supervillain or a neurotic lighthouse keeper, his demented expressions and wild mannerisms can equally inspire horror and hilarity. 

Inside, the debut of director Vasilis Katsoupis, is predicated on the assumption that a fresh portrayal of declining sanity from Dafoe will be captivating enough in itself to sustain a feature-length film. Dafoe stars as Nemo, an art thief tasked with stealing a number of prized pieces from a luxury Manhattan penthouse. In the film’s opening moments, he infiltrates the apartment and gets to work, communicating via a walkie-talkie with an accomplice who’s seemingly brought down the building’s security systems. But the carefully planned heist implodes when an alarm suddenly rings out, sealing the windows and locking the enormous front door. Nemo scrambles for an exit, disoriented by the deafening wail and whirling lights, but he appears to be hopelessly stuck. “You’re on your own,” his partner informs him, before permanently hanging up.

And that’s not a figure of speech. Outside of a few brief dream sequences, Dafoe interacts with no other actors throughout the film’s moderately excessive 105 minute duration. His performance is the centerpiece of the modern art installation Katsoupis has constructed—a cold yet extravagant home that turns from its owner’s sanctuary into Nemo’s prison. The set design is dazzling and deliberate; careful thought was clearly placed into the layout of the vast apartment, which Nemo explores methodically as his plight grows increasingly desperate. It features such emblems of wealth as an interior pool, a movie theater, and a fridge that plays “Macarena” when it’s left open. But these luxurious qualities are offset by the jagged angles, empty space, or muted colors present in every room. There’s a deadening blandness lurking beneath the opulence, and it amplifies the pain Nemo endures as he adapts to a mundane and solitary new routine.

Once the alarm is disarmed, Nemo spends the remainder of the film attempting to escape the penthouse. He tries to break through the front door, but it ultimately can’t be pierced. The windows and walls are similarly resilient, and the maid who vacuums the outside hallway each day can’t hear him screaming for help. Eventually, he determines that the only way out is through a skylight that hangs far above the living room. To reach it, he comically fuses the methods of MacGyver and Wile E. Coyote, assembling a makeshift ladder of tables and chairs held together by straps. At the top, he slowly works to remove the bolts holding the skylight in place. As a substitute for protective goggles, he ties a length of rope around his head, fashions two eye holes, and fills each of them with a shard of glass from a broken vase. This process takes weeks; the passage of time is represented only by the growth of his hair and the evolving grime on a bathtub. And as the ordeal unfolds, Nemo’s isolation—compounded by a lack of food and water and a thermostat that keeps veering between extreme temperatures—threatens to push him over the edge of madness.

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