How you feel about the psychological thriller "Insider" may depend on how you feel about spending the better part of two hours staring nonstop at Willem Dafoe. The actor plays Nemo, an art thief who becomes trapped in a posh Manhattan penthouse after the security system malfunctions. Time goes by — days, weeks, months — and we're alone with Nemo, who does some impressive MacGyvering of the furniture, eats some things I'd rather not contemplate and starts to lose his grip on reality.
As might you, by the end of "Inside," which grimly catalogs the slow deterioration of the apartment and of Nemo. Director Vasilis Katsoupis, working from a screenplay by Ben Hopkins, utilizes numerous extreme close-ups of his star (and not just his face; seriously, by the end of this film, I felt like I could identify the nape of Dafoe's neck in a lineup) and glides right over any questions we might have about the plausibility of the plot. Nemo knows no one who might be looking for him? No one in the building heard banging in a supposedly unoccupied apartment? Rich people really turn off the water supply to their apartment when they go out of town? None of this matters; "Inside" is not about logic, it is about survival, about what it means to have art when you have nothing else, about what happens when life comes down to just being.
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These are potentially interesting themes, but "Inside" doesn't fully engage with them, nor does it give us much of a sense of Nemo's full story (who was this man, before he got trapped in a heist gone wrong?). Instead, it becomes something of a horror film, in which the apartment — an ultramodern aerie whose furnishings seem aggressively uncomfortable, lit in a chilly blue light — appears to be trying to kill Nemo. The heat unbearably zooms up and then plummets, the water and food supply quickly becomes perilous, the closed-circuit video of people in the lobby and hallways going about their lives feels like torture. Meanwhile, the art seems to be watching, taunting him — it's both priceless and worthless, as it can't help him now — and time goes by ... very, very slowly.
But the film's not-so-secret weapon is Dafoe, an ever-intriguing actor who's incapable of a flat performance. Like Robert Redford trapped alone on a slowly sinking boat in "All Is Lost" (the two films would make a fascinating if deeply depressing double feature), he believably creates a man slowly slipping away, yet determined to hang on to whatever toehold he can find. Dafoe, who has an uncanny way of aging before our eyes, finds detail everywhere: in the way Nemo nods after tasting water from the sprinkler, as if approving the wine; in his schticky narration of his dinner assembly, a performance to an audience of no one; in the raw animal panic on his face in the late scenes, as darkness falls. He can't quite save "Inside," but he does make you believe Nemo is worth saving.