Film Review For INSIDE: Willem Dafoe Being Willem Dafoe
“Watch whatever you want, I’m taking a shower,” said I to my fiancé. I returned moments later to a sweaty, scantily-clad Willem Dafoe on TV. He’s trapped alone in a fancy Manhattan penthouse with stunning views of the city. The place is opulent with modern art and sleek, urban luxury. There’s even a tropical aquarium, and a patch of tall trees with their own sprinkler system in the living room.
Dafoe’s character, named Nemo, was part of an art heist gone bad, leaving him trapped in the high-end residence with “smart house” controls. The temperature on the thermostat rises, torturing our gaunt anti-hero. There’s no electricity or water. He’s unable to contact anyone in the building. Nemo’s only “outlet” to the world is viewing grainy security camera footage of the doorman and a pretty dark-haired maid he calls Jasmine.
Since the water is cut off, we get an extended close-up of Nemo’s face inside the freezer licking up ice, sucking on cubes. We see every angle of Mr. Dafoe’s sharp bone structure and wrinkled skin, greedily licking the freezer while “Macarena” blares from the house speakers. The visual-audio juxtaposition serves as recurring irony throughout the film.
Imagine his happiness when the sprinklers suddenly turn on to water the trees. He rushes over to kneel down and drink desperately from a sprinkler nozzle like a greedy baby at the teat. Here we’re granted to yet another extended close-up of Dafoe’s face desperately seeking sustenance. He truly fears for his life with the dwindling the supply of fancy delicacies. Eventually the penthouse becomes too cold, and when he discovers a fire alarm, he makes the sprinklers turn on, making him too wet.
Inside is a star vehicle to be sure. It allows Willem Dafoe to do what he does best— being Willem Dafoe. You know, a weird guy. He sometimes sees his friends at Weird Guy Meetings: Steve Buscemi, Crispin Glover, Nic Cage. Christopher Walken might be the president of the club. These sort of actors are great for their ability to startle audiences with novel performances. Who could forget Dafoe’s bit part in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart as menacing sleaze ball, Bobby Peru. His bad teeth and squished up face under pantyhose are seared into my mind’s eye before his untimely death. The fact he feels abandoned also hearkens his desperate visage in the scene from Oliver Stone’s Platoon when the helicopter leaves him behind. To me his most iconic performance was portraying Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. As Christ, Dafoe’s skin and bones suffering is on full display; he embodies the tortured Christ figure, resembling the crucifix above the altar in the Catholic School I grew up in.
Some reviewers remarked on his name being a reference to Pixar’s Finding Nemo. One of the fish in the aquarium is an orange and white striped clown fish. In a disturbing turn of events, he runs out of food— including dog food— and resorts to eating a fish raw from the aquarium. He chooses one other than the clown fish. Is this significant? I don’t know. I just kept thinking, Here’s another Nemo someone needs to find.
At one point he breaks into the wall where we see him walk through a thin crevasse leading to a mysterious room with a startling art installation waiting for him to discover. It’s a rubber mannequin laid out on a table, made to resemble a deceased elderly man. The mannequin holds a note in its hand. Sorry I don’t remember what the note said. Probably because I was distracted by the giggle factor. Seeing Dafoe in the walls reminded me of the Family Guy episode in which the famous actor shows up under Stewie’s bed for no apparent reason other than to menace. Where’s he gonna show up next— the attic? You never know with Dafoe.
Inside has an experimental, floaty quality as we drift from scene to scene. We watch Nemo go mad as he sinks deeper into the “heart of darkness”. He hallucinates, giving us hints (perhaps flashbacks) of his place in the world of NY’s art scene. In one sequence he’s at a high fallutin’ party with eccentric looking characters straight out of a Fellini film.
Inside’s drifting quality reminded me of the much better executed 2002 experimental film, Russian Ark. This brilliant Russian film by director Alexander Sokurov follows a ghost around Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Art Museum, sometimes when it functioned centuries ago as the Winter Palace. The protagonist ghost addresses the audience as he moves from room to room with perfect choreographed pacing by all actors. He moves forward and backward in time with no camera editing cuts. Pure genius. I felt like Inside wanted to be a Russian Ark, but it lacked an over-arching thought provoking concept and less elegant pacing.
As Nemo really starts to lose it, I wondered why he didn’t make a big sign on a bedsheet and hang it on the window for people in the plethora of tall buildings of he Manhattan skyline to see. Like in that episode of Gilligan’s Island when they write SOS on the sand for an airplane to see. Sure, Nemo would risk imprisonment as a burglar, but isn’t that preferable to death? He practically kills himself when he climbs a flimsy tower he fashioned from random objects to escape through the roof. Eating the raw fish was bad enough.
By the way, Nemo’s an artist. The whole time he draws in his sketchbook, and his descent into madness coincides with drawings on the walls. His voice over at the film’s opening establishes his passionate love for art, stating that as a child he’d rather save his sketchbook and AC/DC album from a fire over his family. This made me wonder if his torture was a planned "art installation” of sorts at the hands of an absent depraved rich person who knew Nemo would inevitably create art as he died. Surely this would generate macabre, marketable art pieces from a dying man. The concept’s novelty alone would be enough to entice interest. But alas, this didn’t happen.
Oh, I almost forgot— at one point he has a one-sided conversation with a sick and dying pigeon through a glass door. When we eventually see the dead pigeon’s maggot-filled corpse I thought for sure Nemo would end up in a similar fashion. But he doesn’t. I can’t really explain the end, nor would I give it away. I just hope no fish or birds were harmed during the making of this film.