It's What's Inside Review: A Twisty, Tense, Energetic Thriller That Deserves A Big Audience [Sundance] 

The concept of identity is a strange one these days. Everybody has at least two separate personas: online and in-person. Beyond that, each individual's identity fractures even further, as there's one persona for work, one for friends, one for relationships and/or lovers, one for strangers, and so on. This isn't a new issue by any means, as concepts like code-switching, modulating one's attitude for different people and situations, have existed nearly since advanced socialization began. The latest problem is one of perception, and thanks to the mountain of evidence known as a social media account can be called up by anyone at any time, your identity isn't fully under your own control anymore: context can be manipulated, details obscured, tone obliterated.

Greg Jardin, the writer and director of "It's What's Inside," a fantastic new thriller that premiered at Sundance this past week, is already attempting to control his own movie's identity. At the film's premiere in Park City, he implored journalists and critics like myself to not give away what's inside a certain character's briefcase, and from that mandate, you may think this concerns a late-stage plot twist. What it actually concerns is the film's core premise, something that's part and parcel of any discussion of any movie. The reason, I assume, for this request is the fact that "It's What's Inside" does tease out not just its own plot but even what genre of film it's going to be for most of its first act, and the surprise and subsequent excitement by a large, captive audience at the eventual reveal is pretty delicious.

Sadly, it seems that experience will remain exclusive to those of us who were lucky enough to see it with an audience at Sundance, as news has broken that Netflix has not only acquired the film for a staggering $17 million, but that the service will not be giving the movie a theatrical release. As such, I will not spoil the movie, but in hopes of getting the average Netflix user to make a point to watch it rather than accidentally find it a decade from now, I'll give away some tidbits. If you'd like to go in completely cold, read no further, but do know that "It's What's Inside" is one of the funniest, most clever, and narratively ambitious movies I've seen in a long while.

All tomorrow's parties

After an enigmatic opening shot that is utterly baffling until you discover what exactly is inside that aforementioned suitcase, "It's What's Inside" begins by taking a look at the troubled relationship between Shelby (Brittany O'Grady) and Cyrus (James Morosini). On the surface, they're not communicating with each other well, as Shelby dons a wig and some skimpy underwear to try and entice Cyrus into a roleplay scenario, and Cyrus quickly stops an impromptu masturbation session to essentially turn Shelby down. However, a truth the audience is privy to that neither Shelby nor Cyrus are (yet) is that both people are fantasizing about the same third party: Nikki (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a popular social media influencer they used to attend college with. Cyrus seems to want to be with her, while Shelby seems to want to be her, a truth reinforced minutes later during a furiously edited montage where Shelby scours Nikki's socials with a mixture of disgust and rampant envy.

Right away, Jardin's visual aesthetic and cutting style demonstrate his gleeful embracing of vulgar auteurism — Kevin Fletcher's camera flies every which way at a moment's notice, needle drops get wallpapered over numerous scenes with abandon, and every audacious choice that could be made gets made. This isn't mere indulgence on Jardin's part, however; he's establishing tone as much as pace with his flashy style, indicating that not only are things about to get frantic and weird, but that you can't trust your own expectations of what will happen next.

The basic set-up for the film involves Shelby, Cyrus, Nikki, and the rest of their old college crew — a tattooed poser, Dennis (Gavin Leatherwood), an alt artist, Brooke (Reina Hardesty), and a new-age hippie, Maya (Nina Bloomgarden) — attending a pre-wedding party for their pal Reuben (Devon Terrell) at his now-deceased eccentric artist mother's mansion. Adding to the night's "Big Chill" meets "Bodies Bodies Bodies" vibes of unresolved tensions is the arrival of the most mysterious member of the gang, Forbes (David Thompson), a guy whom the group last saw being expelled after a disastrous party and who shows up with, you guessed it, the briefcase. Once that case is opened, a game begins, and all bets are way, way off.

It's my party and I'll lie if I want to

Once the central premise of the film has been revealed, "It's What's Inside" turns into a steadily coiling snake, allowing each character to dig themselves into a deeper moral and ethical hole until the cobra finally strikes. In ways both literal and figurative, no one is who they claim to be, and while the mounting pile of lies that the characters build up may make things difficult to keep track of at times, it nonetheless brilliantly creates a powerful sense of paranoia that pervades the entire movie.

One of the reasons Jardin is able to make his film resonate this well is because, despite the movie's of-the-moment cultural trappings, he's not interested in making a pointed statement about a particular generation. "It's What's Inside" is broader than merely being a riff on Gen Z's identity issues, and that broadness, of course, only makes it feel more applicable. That said, Jardin is hardly interested in being subtle, either; if his bravura filmmaking weren't enough, there are elements like a giant flashing sign that reads "TRAUMA" on the patio of Reuben's mansion, and to say that something traumatic ends up occurring there hardly feels like a spoiler.

It'll be interesting to see what the cultural identity of "It's What's Inside" ultimately is. While a theatrical release could've very likely made it a new "Talk To Me" or "Bodies Bodies Bodies," there's no doubt that it would've been marketed as a horror film, and despite the presence of a jumpscare or two, the movie isn't pure horror, which may disappoint those looking for a fright or a bloodbath. What the film actually is (besides delightful) is up for debate, but it feels like a return of the type of psychodrama thriller that Brian De Palma used to make, filtered through the youthful energy of a 2010s teen comedy. Finding one's true identity is never easy or pleasant, but the ultimate revelations and their implications can be compelling or, in the best cases, life-changing.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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