Like ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ Only in a Manhattan Apartment Building

With ‘Inside,’ director Vasilis Katsoupis ponders whether ‘sophisticated living, with its automation and smart systems, could turn against life itself.’ If only he had stuck to crafting a tidy intellectual thriller.

Wolfgang Ennenbach/Focus Features
Willem Dafoe in ‘Inside.’ Wolfgang Ennenbach/Focus Features

The director Vasilis Katsoupis, whose new movie “Inside” is set to open March 17, came upon the inspiration for the story some 10 years ago while crashing in a friend’s Lower Manhattan apartment — a cavernous luxury flat filled with pricey art and ultra-modern conveniences.

Mr. Katsoupis began to ponder the relationship between art and life. Was art, he wondered, in a manner that is nothing if not Socratic, little more than a “shadow of real life”? Mr. Katsoupis subsequently felt inspired to make a movie exploring notions of altered perception, objective truth, and redemption. Pretty heady stuff, you’ve got to admit. 

Mr. Katsoupis reached out to a writer and director, Ben Hopkins, who’s worked as a hired gun for a number of filmmakers, including Kirill Serebrennikov and Pawel Pawlikowski. Mr. Hopkins mulled the director’s notions about whether “sophisticated living, with its automation and smart systems, could turn against life itself.” That led Mr. Hopkins not to “The Republic” but, rather, “Robinson Crusoe,” Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century novel about a castaway struggling to survive on a remote island.

“Inside” is the tale of a man trapped on an island or, rather, an island within an island. Willem Dafoe, an actor who’s never shied away from taxing or provocative roles, plays Nemo, the go-to man for a band of art thieves. When we first encounter Nemo, he’s descending from a helicopter onto the terrace of a towering Manhattan skyscraper. Mr. Dafoe, ever sinewy, joins Liam Neeson, Allison Janney, and other members of AARP as an action hero of a certain age. He’ll be 68 come this July.

With the aid of comrades heard over an earphone, Nemo does some nimble breaking-and-entering in order to steal a trio of drawings by Egon Schiele. Two of the pieces are readily located. Notwithstanding the degree of reconnaissance that has been put into the heist, the third and likely most valuable Schiele proves difficult to locate. The rest of the art adorning the walls — much of it big, a lot of it garish — is chump change compared with that of the doomed Austrian expressionist.

Nemo’s professional expertise begins to falter. If the elusive Schiele wasn’t stressful enough, the apartment’s security system is set off and then proceeds to go haywire. Doors and windows lock tight; the water is turned off. The computerized control panel goes on the fritz. The heating system switches on; the temperature starts to climb. Nemo’s partners-in-crime abandon him to his fate. He’s trapped in a no-man’s land of blue chip investments, smart appliances, and brutalist decor.

Nemo’s contact with the outside world is limited to the static on his walkie-talkie and a big screen monitor that tunes into the building’s security monitors. When he’s not actively trying to break out of his confines, Nemo watches the video feed from the lobby, stairwells, and hallways. When he spies a cleaning woman directly outside, Nemo tries to get her attention by making noise. Alas, the apartment door is as dense as the walls of a bank vault. Nor does it help that the cleaning woman wears headphones while vacuuming.

What follows is a test of one man’s ingenuity and the often absurd lengths he undergoes in order to escape his predicament. Rube Goldberg may well have approved of the machinations by which Nemo reaches the apartment’s skylight. Would that Messrs. Katsoupis and Hopkins had stuck to crafting a tidy intellectual thriller. Alas, cleverness cedes the way for some tendentious philosophical sidebars and, with them, an increased reliance on dirt, grime, and Mr. Dafoe undergoing a host of icky physical complaints. 

A bigger question remains: What, exactly, is going on in Greece? Given the spate of oddball directors coming out of the country following the success of Yorgos Lanthimos, it’s become evident that there’s been something unseemly brewing under the hot Athenian sun. Perhaps the collective psyche of Greece’s auteurs would be better served by spending more time in the shade. Whether their art would benefit from doing so is, of course, another question.


​Mr. Naves is an artist, teacher and critic based in New York City. His writing has appeared in City Arts, The New Criterion,The New York Observer, Slate, The Spectator World, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.

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