At the out set, 30-year-old Afrikaaner Peter Martin Strydom (Eric Stoltz) already has been detained for some time in an externally innocuous Johannesburg building that houses political prisoners. He’s been beaten and tortured, but as yet denies any alleged “conspiracy to commit treason, sabotage and terrorism.” He makes it plain where his idealogical loyalties lie, however, despite his family’s prominent background in conservative Afrikaaner politics.
Interrogating Col. Krueger (Nigel Hawthorne) deploys a wicked array of tactics to encourage Marty’s confession and the naming of any fellow “conspirators.” He feeds the prisoner possibly bogus information about his girlfriend, father and the alleged civilian-death consequences of his accused arms-hiding on behalf of freedom fighters. He also plants informants in adjacent cells, tapes conversations and has other incarcerated men beaten to death within Strydom’s view. Inevitably, the latter’s will begins to break.
Ten years later, the colonel reviews these events — under the unforgiving gaze of his own “Questioner” (Louis Gossett Jr.) investigating the former regime’s human rights crimes in a new, post-Apartheid era.
Put in the hot seat himself for a change, the colonel remains a model of cool hypocrisy and denial — to a point. But the Questioner knows more about this case than he initially lets on.
Though both stories are integral here, one odd thing about “Inside” is how indifferently screenwriter Stagg deploys his split narrative structure, rarely making much of the potential to have developments in one period heighten drama in another.
The scenarist does, however, craft numerous tersely powerful sequences, as well as a striking denouement for Strydom that takes the colonel’s sadism to a shocking new level. The decision to follow this with a hyperbolic scene involving the prisoner’s father seems poorly judged by contrast, hitting an anticlimactic note.
Penn, lenser Jan Weincke and the production designers do a terrific job exploiting the claustrophobia of the central action, which takes place entirely in the colonel’s office and one dank cell block, with p.o.v. shots through prisoners’ peepholes particularly effective. Given the compelling atmosphere, however, infrequent forays “outside” do more to distract from than open up the three-hander focus.
Stoltz vividly portrays his figure’s steady mental and physical disintegration, making the tragic outcome fully credible. But pic’s strongest suit is held by Hawthorne, whose meticulously faked empathy and icy, sarcastic lack of conscience here will unsettle auds who remember him as the endearingly “mad” King George.
Co-exec-producer Gossett has less to work with, lending the Questioner one note of accusatory outrage; when he turns up in late flashback segs, his histrionics sometimes go over the top. Penn does well to otherwise maintain a low-key approach, keeping both violent and inspirational moments on the same grim, unadorned plane.
Though much of the action could have been shot on studio sets anywhere, production lensed exclusively in South Africa, adding to the overall realistic atmosphere. Aside from opening and closing credits, music scoring is nonexistent. Other tech elements are likewise deliberately spare and pro.