He’s played Vincent van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate,” an artist-electrician in “Basquiat,” an artist-counterfeiter in “To Live and Die in L.A,” and in Vasilis Katsoupis’ “Inside” actor Willem Dafoe plays an artist turned art thief who gets trapped in a luxury penthouse during a heist. The mostly one-man show tests the audience’s patience by confining it to the concrete and glass prison with Dafoe’s character who attempts to survive lockdown under extreme temperatures with little or no food and water. It’s not a pretty sight but a wonderful contrast to the artwork curated by Leonardo Bigazzi for the film.

I feel at this point, there comes a turning point in every Willem Dafoe role where his character enters a maddening phase. Why not? He’s so good at it. Just last year we saw him lose his shizz as Heimir the Fool in “The Northman.” As Nemo the art thief in “Inside,” we get to see Dafoe showcase his penchant for the downward spiral. For any other actor, this would be the role of a lifetime that could make or break a career. For an OG like Dafoe, it’s a walk in the park. If you like it, great. If you hate it, no prob. Bring on “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.”

Shot in chronological order working from a script by Ben Hopkins, the process left room for improvisation and according to director Vasilis Katsoupis, making his narrative feature debut, as much as 40% of the film was unscripted. You can look at that as “that explains it” or you look at it as a testament to Dafoe’s talent. In this situation, it’s a little of both.

In voiceover narration, Nemo explains, “When I was a kid my teacher asked what I would save from my house if it were on fire.” He continues, “I answered my sketchbook, my AC/DC album, and my cat, Groucho.” He didn’t mention his family. He goes on to explain that eventually, his cat died, he loaned out his AC/DC album and never got it back, but he still has his sketchbook. Art is an important part of Nemo’s life, and several times in the story we see him sketching to pass the time which has come to a grinding halt.

Known as codename “Number One” in what appears to be a three-man job, Nemo has just seven minutes to snatch a collection of art from a luxurious penthouse located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The security alarm malfunctions mid-heist causing the steel-plated door to lockdown leaving Nemo trapped inside. His pleas for help on the walkie “Come in Number Three” go unanswered until finally, he hears “Sorry, man, you’re on your own.”

A joint like this and an art collection this valuable would surely be maintained by someone. Also, this was obviously a pre-planned heist, as the owner is gone for quite some time. Still, no one responds to the deafening alarm including security, the police, maintenance, or neighbors. Nemo must cut the speaker wires with a knife just to kill the sound. Who knows, the alarm may have been going off throughout the entire film.

Realizing he’s trapped inside, Nemo begins scouring the penthouse for food and water. There is none. The refrigerator is empty (if the fridge door stays open too long the song “Macarena” by Los Del Rio begins to play providing a few funny moments). Also, the water has been turned off which means nothing to drink and no way to bathe or flush the toilet. The phone lines are dead, and he has no cell phone, although the television provides a constant feed of the security cameras alerting Nemo to the nearby presence of housekeeper Jasmine (Eliza Stuyck); she’s constantly wearing headphones and doesn’t hear Nemo’s cries for help.

Days turn to weeks which turn to months, as Nemo struggles to stay alive by drinking water from the timed sprinklers in the indoor garden and eating whatever he can find including the exotic fish in the aquarium. To make matters worse the HVAC system malfunctions raising temperatures in the penthouse above 100 and then dropping them below freezing.

Nemo attempts several times to escape his gilded cage but not only is it soundproof, but it is also waterproof and the windows are unbreakable. Madness turns to despair as Dafoe is given another chance to showcase his skill at playing a man losing his sanity. It’s a brilliant performance that outweighs the source material.

As Nemo wallows in madness, he begins to hallucinate and talk to himself, yet Katsoupis never gives the audience a reason to question if what we are seeing is real, which would have made the film more interesting. He does however give us plenty of opportunities to question the film’s logic.

“Inside” will test the tolerance level of even the biggest Willem Dafoe fan. After 100 minutes of logic-defying moments, Katsoupis has one more trick up his sleeve, an ending that’s ambiguous. I guess it depends on how you decide to look at it. Still either way, yet highly unlikely, should there be a sequel it would be called… you guessed it, “Finding Nemo.”

(2 ½ stars)

Now showing in theatres

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.