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“Inside” offers actor Willem Dafoe a chance to command the screen all on his own

This psychological thriller is a bit thin, but Dafoe keeps it hanging together

Across numerous decades, directors and genres, Dafoe has become one of the most spellbinding screen presences of the modern age.
Across numerous decades, directors and genres, Dafoe has become one of the most spellbinding screen presences of the modern age.

In the modern film industry, survival stories have become a dime a dozen. In the last decade alone, audiences have seen films such as “All Is Lost,” “Gravity” and “The Martian” pit high-profile thespians against the ravages of nature. Now, “Inside” joins the pack.

As with any firmly established genre, the success of a survival story largely rests on the strength of the execution. At this point, one might think that there is not a whole lot of new narrative ground that one of these films can tread.

If nothing else, “Inside” acts as a definitive rebuke to that aforementioned assumption. The film follows Nemo, an art thief played by actor Willem Dafoe, who quickly becomes trapped in a luxurious high-rise apartment when its security system malfunctions mid-robbery.

The movie, which tracks Nemo’s attempts to survive in the sealed-off penthouse, takes the bold step of locating its isolated battle for survival in an entirely interior space. While the characters in “All Is Lost” and “Gravity” battled the primal dangers of the vicious seas and deep space, respectively, Nemo’s dangers are comparatively contemporary.

A malfunctioning thermometer replaces the severity of the extreme outdoors. A lack of running water leads to a pile-up of urine and feces. Indoor sprinklers — rather than torrents of rain — offer refuge to the dehydrated protagonist. Nemo plucks and eats fish from an aquarium, rather than a running river. The peppy pop of “Macarena” pours out of an automated refrigerator, wreaking havoc on Nemo’s eardrums and psyche.

Despite these interesting tweaks on the survival movie template, “Inside” still finds itself a bit restricted by the inherent limitations of the formula. Simply put, there is not a whole lot to the narrative, which mostly follows a one-track path through Nemo’s attempted escape, rapidly deteriorating mental state and gradual starvation. Regardless of some interesting detours into dreamy hallucination or elliptical editing, the movie feels a bit thin at a running time of 105 minutes.

Even still, the film remains compelling. It helps to have such a fiercely compelling actor at the center of the movie. Across numerous decades, directors and genres, Dafoe has become one of the most spellbinding screen presences of the modern age. He brings his trademark intensity and physicality to this role, anchoring even the movie’s more sluggish passages with the conviction of his performance.

The movie is also kept afloat by a confident directorial hand and rock-solid sense of technical craft. Helmed by little-known director Vasilis Katsoupis, the film exhibits a casual virtuosity in many of its best passages.

This is on full display in the movie’s intense opening sequence, which wastes no time in throwing Nemo into his arduous ordeal. Utilizing razor-sharp editing and deliberately abrasive sound design, the set-piece effectively conveys the terrifying panic of a heist abruptly gone wrong, exacerbated by the technological short-circuiting happening all around the lead character.

The movie is also chock-full of striking shot compositions courtesy of cinematographer Steve Annis, positioning itself as the rare modern movie to effectively utilize every corner of its widescreen frames. This kind of engaging visual language is all too rare nowadays and a large part of what made director M. Night Shyamalan’s work on the recent “Knock at the Cabin” such a formal treat.

It is a thrill to see that tradition of visual storytelling continued here, especially coming from relatively unestablished cinematic talent. Even if “Inside” struggles to be much more than a well-crafted showcase for the formidable talents of its lead actor, that is more than enough for a satisfying piece of genre entertainment.