Producers: Marcos Kantis, Dries Phylpo and Giorgios Karnavas   Director: Vasilis Katsoupis   Screenplay: Ben Hopkins   Cast: Willem Dafoe, Eliza Stuyck, Gene Bervoets and Josia Krug   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: C

Willem Dafoe does a virtual one-man show in Vasilis Katsoupis’ sophomore feature about an art thief trapped for months without much food, running water or a functioning bathroom in a posh high-rise penthouse he was robbing, but as “Inside” grinds on, you might wind up feeling as much a captive as the protagonist is.  In part that’s the purpose of the exercise, but though you can admit that it succeeds in that respect, you might find yourself asking: Is it worth spending two hours on so suffocating an experience? 

You could perhaps feel differently if the script by Ben Hopkins managed to get inside the psyche of the thief, but while it employs narrative voiceover and some dream sequences as the thief’s predicament grows more and more desperate, it really doesn’t try.  Dafoe’s performance is impressive, but remains a surface portrait of panic drifting into increasingly sad resignation as attempts to escape repeatedly fail.  Frankly even Dafoe, as intense as ever, gets boring after a while.  It seems appropriate that according to the end credits the protagonist is named Nemo, because he has pretty much remained nobody throughout.

Or is he intended rather to be, in a way, a symbol of a particular kind of solitary man?  There’s one aspect of the guy’s personality that’s revealed early on.  Toward the start he recollects a school exercise in which students were asked what they’d save if they were caught in a house fire.  While his classmates mentioned family members, he’d chosen his cat, a cherished CD, and his sketchbooks.  But only the third proved permanent. “Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeps,” he says. 

The sentiment, alluded to again near the close, is clearly meant to serve as a key to what Hopkins and Katsoupis are after: their picture intends to be not a probingly “realistic” character study, but a reflection on valuing art over humanity, a dramatic test of Nemo’s pronouncement.  As the plot progresses, the fellow’s treatment of the art he’s trapped with becomes less and less solicitous, and by the end he’s destroying much of it, using bits of it to fashion his own “exhibits” and scrawling sketches on the walls.  He apologizes to the absent owner, but says maybe it’s a necessary process—the theory of “creative destruction” employed by some economics transferred to the world of artistic creation.

The question for the viewer is whether the film’s higher ambitions are realized, or “Inside” remains essentially a grim tale of a man trying to survive in a hostile environment—the ritzy apartment being merely the equivalent of a treacherous wilderness in which a person might find himself stranded (a hackneyed adventure-movie trope), with the museum-quality artwork curated by Leonardo Bigazzi and striking production design by Thorsten Sabel serving as modernist replacements in a hoary plot, the movie’s stand-in for snarling animals and threatening foliage.  The answer for one viewer, at least, is that the way in which the makers employ the various elements of the design—the paintings, photos, videos, displays, and even the set—is clever (if you’re sufficiently knowledgeable to grasp the allusions), but not enough to give their Grand Statement the profundity they’re aiming for.

The film does, however, grab your attention with a riveting account of Nemo’s getting into the apartment, whose owner has left for an extended stay in Kazakhstan, via helicopter and his hurried effort to collect pre-selected pieces by Egon Schiele from an extensive art collection while his confederate urges him on via a headpiece.  When the security system activates and locks Nemo in, his partner simply tells him he’s on his own and ends communication.  One wonders why staff and police don’t arrive to investigate, but the script simply sidesteps such matters to depict Nemo’s initial frantic efforts to escape a place more effectively outfitted to keep him in than it was to prevent him from entering.

The slick ostentation of the place is shrewdly employed to skewer the ultra-rich culture vultures who buy artworks that they then hide away from the vast majority of “vulgar” humanity.  A refrigerator that blasts out “Macarena” to remind one not to leave the door open too long is a nifty idea, and the uses to which Nemo ultimately puts the reflecting pool and aquarium of exotic fish are fitting, if obvious, elements of the commentary on the crass opulence of the lifestyles of one-percenters the film is at pains to convey.  The same can be said of Nemo’s destruction of much of the carefully-chosen designer furniture to construct a rickety tower he climbs to break through the skylight to freedom.

But other plot elements have a strange banality to them—Nemo’s attempts to connect with the outside world by observing building workers via CCTV (especially Eliza Stuyck’s housekeeper, whom he names Jasmine and longs to connect with, because she could prove his salvation in more ways than one) or his concern for an injured pigeon on the terrace, which he remains separated from by unbreakable glass are heavy-handed means of emphasizing how his rigorous commitment to art over emotional relationships is fraying under the stress of his isolation.

One has to admire the care with which Hopkins and Katsoupis attend to their chosen template, and the commitment that Dafoe, Bigazzi, Sabel, and the other craftsmen involved in the project, including cinematographer Steven Annis, editor Lambis Haralambidis, costume designer Catherine Van Brée and composer Frederick Van de Moortel, have devoted themselves to realizing their vision.

But in the end one is left wondering whether the artiness of “Inside” says as much about the pretensions of the filmmakers as it does about those of Nemo and the owner of the apartment he trashes.  After all, it’s just a more cerebral take on the sort of survival story told by “Man in the Wilderness” or “The Revenant,” pitched at the intellect rather than the gut, and in the end more contrived than compelling.