Roger Ebert said, “The purpose of civilization is to be able to empathize with other people, and for me, the movies are like a machine that generate empathy. It’s let you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears.”
Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, is a movie about people who realize how much of a nuisance empathy can be.
Playing somewhat like American Psycho-meets-Heathers-meets-It Follows and set in a hyper-affluent New England suburb, Thoroughbreds concerns itself with two teenage girls and their plan to murder someone. Amanda (Olivia Cooke, the Me and Earl and the Dying Girl star I know mostly through her run on Bates Motel) is a literal sociopath and social piranha due to looming charges of animal cruelty connected to her messy mercy killing of a wounded prize horse. Lily (The Witch and Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy) is her estranged childhood friend who suddenly wants to start hanging out together again. Soon enough, Lily asks Amanda to help her kill her douchey stepdad (Paul Sparks).
Amanda is someone who would never have thought about killing Lily’s stepdad if she hadn’t been asked, and Lily is someone who never would have thought to ask if she hadn’t met Amanda. Together, they come to embrace just how freeing it is to live a life unencumbered by silly little things like emotions or empathy. The thrust of the narrative is simply watching if and/or how they’ll go through with the murder and if/how they’ll live with themselves afterward.
And that’s it. Throw in a subplot involving Anton Yelchin, in his final film role, as a pathetic drug dealer who briefly gets roped into Amanda and Lily’s plan and acts as the sole representative of any kind of underclass and that’s the whole movie. It’s a black comedy-thriller that is neither particularly funny nor altogether thrilling, at least not conventionally. It is, however, draped head to toe in a wonderful sense of dread, thanks in no small part to an ever-patient camera and remarkably unsettling, percussion-heavy musical score by Erik Friedlander.
The film comes to us from a 28-year-old Yale graduate named Cory Finley, who first hatched the idea while tutoring upper-crust Connecticut kids after college. He told IndieWire, “I could always feel the weight of the wealth around me, not just the love in it, but also the violence. At the same time, I also really came to like the kids that I was working with, as any good teacher would.” However, he also worried what the increasingly 1%-oriented world would do to these kids and what that might mean for the rest of us. He feared his students were so inoculated from the rest of the world that they were just a couple of pushes away from viewing everyone as either a maid seeing to their needs (a mindset Lily is accused of having by her step-dad) or an obstacle standing between them and wealth.
So, he came up with the story of a girl who couldn’t feel any emotions and another girl who was willing to learn how to suppress all of her emotions to get ahead in the world. The fact that Lily, in the end, really only wants to kill her stepdad because he occasionally has the gall to tell her what to do and plans on sending her to an elite New England boarding school is entirely the point. What’s been done to her never rises to a more traditional justification for murder, but she’s a rich white girl who suddenly realizes she can get away with just about anything if she simply stops caring about the world and the people in it, even her family and/or “friends.”
It’s not hard, then, to see Thoroughbreds as a commentary on the Trumpification of the world. But Finley hopes we see more nuance, “I think trying to parse the moral heart of the movie isn’t productive. I like movies that present moral quandaries, that make you constantly reevaluate your position relative to the characters.”
The stepdad, after all, isn’t evil with a capital E, but he is also fairly heartless and verbally abusive toward Lily’s mother. Amanda is introduced to us like some future serial killer approaching a horse with a knife, but she later explains herself quite rationally (she really did think she was doing the just thing and putting a wounded horse down) and proves more resistant to murder than Lily, who puts on an innocent face to hide a darkness inside.
But the film’s not as successful in these shifting dynamics as Finley thinks it is. Look to Netflix’s The End of the Fucking World for something which also plays with teen sociopathy and does a more entertaining and effective job of shifting its protagonists from who they are at the start to who they are the end. Moreover, if there’s supposed to be a larger commentary on how society has made these girls the way they are it’s somewhat missing in translation other than a basic assumption, “Rich people=bad.” Amanda and Lily clearly bring out the worst in each other. That much is clear. However, I just don’t think there’s as much of an actual moral quandary here as Finely was going for, and a tacked-on monologue at the end trying to tie the narrative to the larger societal forces of isolation comes far too late in the game to be meaningful.
Luckily, then, Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy each deliver stellar performances, not that this a surprise to anyone familiar with their work. Moreover, Finley’s supremely confident camerawork is often spellbinding. A first-time filmmaker with a background in theater, he not surprisingly leans quite heavily on long takes and held shots, heightening tension at the most opportune times by refusing to cut away or show us a different camera angle.
For example, there’s a sequence of Lily simply walking through her mansion of a house, and Finley’s camera follows slowly behind her while Friedlander’s drums beat arrhythmically, the image speaking to her isolation, the music to her frame of mind. It is among the most unnerving scenes I’ve seen in any film this year, and there are several more like it throughout Thoroughbreds.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Think of it as How to Get Ahead in Life By Trying to Get Away with Murder and Not Batting an Eye In the Process Because Emotions Are For Suckers.
Thoroughbreds announces first-time filmmaker Cory Finley as a preternaturally talented voice and reaffirms Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy’s place on the list of the next big things in Hollywood. While imperfect, Thoroughbreds is black comedy- thriller, borderline horror flick which should be of interest to anyone who goes in for artsy, slow burns.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Don’t watch the trailer. It’s pretty much the whole movie condensed into two and a half minutes.
- Focus Features bought this for $5m at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It finally opened in less than 600 theaters last weekend and grossed $1.2, finishing well outside the top 10. When I saw it last night, I had the entire theater to myself. So, yeah, if you want to see this don’t hesitate. It’s clearly not going to be in theaters very long.