Thursday, May 3, 2018

Movie Review—Thoroughbreds

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by Peter J. O’Connell

Thoroughbreds. Released: March 2018. Runtime: 92 mins. MPAA Rating: R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references, and some drug content. 

In Thoroughbredswhen Amanda (Olivia Cooke) enters the mansion in Connecticut where Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives, she is not just entering a brightly lit world of wealth and privilege manifested in decorative excess, she is bringing the dark world of her mind with her. And writer/director Cory Finley will take us on a tour of both worlds. 

Amanda is a dark-haired, dark-eyed, blank-faced high school girl who is facing animal cruelty charges for having knifed her horse to death. Lily is a golden-haired, blue-eyed, porcelain-skinned high school girl with cupid-bow lips—seemingly a classic “nice girl.”

The two girls had been best friends earlier but grew apart after the death of Lily’s father. They meet again under the pretense of having Lily provide a casual tutoring session for Amanda. It’s quickly learned, however, that Amanda’s mother, worried about Amanda’s social isolation because of the notoriety surrounding her from the horse knifing, has paid Lily to tutor her daughter, primarily to lessen the isolation. In this community, money is behind many things.

But love is in short supply. Lily lives with her mother and stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), a vain and cruel man, continually exercising, whom Lily hates because of his emotionally and verbally abusive attitude toward her and her mother (Francie Swift), who is suffering from cancer.  

Despite the bogus nature of the tutoring session, Amanda and Lily renew their relationship. Fluttery and seemingly sensitive, Lily is nevertheless fascinated by Amanda, who says: “I don’t have any feelings, ever. Joy, guilt—I really don’t have any of those. And that doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person; it just means I have to work a little harder to be good.” 
Amanda substitutes mimicry for the emotions that she lacks and can even cry on cue using a “technique” that she has taught herself. She says that psychiatrists flip through their manual seeking to find a term to describe her and have currently decided on “antisocial personality disorder with schizoid tendencies.” But Amanda doesn’t care what they say. She just wants to be like college dropout/digital genius Steve Jobs.   “I want to skip college and Steve Jobs my way through life.” 

Lily is soon imitating the affectless but charismatic Amanda by darkening her hair and in various other ways. And when Mark threatens to send her to a boarding school for girls with behavioral issues and not pay for college, Lily goes Amanda one dark thought farther and suggests that they actually begin to plan in detail the murder of Mark that Amanda had casually mentioned earlier. Lily has taken to heart Amanda’s concept that “the only thing worse than being incompetent or being unkind or being evil is being indecisive.”

In furtherance of their scheme, the girls rope in Tim (Anton Yelchin), a jittery drug dealer, one interested in young girls, who is working as a dishwasher. Like Amanda, Tim is also a big admirer of Steve Jobs. (Ironically, it is entrepreneurial Mark who actually seems to resemble Jobs.) Various twists and turns involving the murder plot lead up to a surprising conclusion.

Along the way we learn that Amanda has a recurring dream about a future society that has fallen apart because of human vanity and has to be run by horses if it is to recover. This dream may remind some moviegoers of the final part of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which a better society than England’s is run by Houyhnhnms (“whinny/humans”), a race of talking horses.  

If this reference is intended, it is certainly appropriate, for Thoroughbredshas a kind of Swiftian pitch-black humor and slashing (in more senses than one) satire of class and gender expectations vis-à-vis actual behavior and of society’s formulations about normality and abnormality. The cast, particularly the two leads, is pitch (black) perfect. The movie has mostly one setting, the mansion, but the cinematography is so good that though, in several senses, the characters operate within the world of the mansion, the audience doesn’t feel confined by the setting. The score, which often incorporates what sounds like Mark’s exercise rowing machine, contributes much to the movie. So, trot off to Thoroughbreds!

“Footnotes” to the film: There is a small subgenre of films about murderous young women. An actual case in France spawned: Jean Genet’s playThe Maids(1947); a 1975 British film based on the play, starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York; and Claude Chabrol’s film La Ceremonie(1995). Patty McCormack was a young murderess inTheBad Seed(1956). Lord of the Ringsdirector Peter Jackson helmed Heavenly Creatures(1994), based on an actual case from the 1950s in New Zealand. In Heathers(1988), set in a high school, Christian Slater’s character egged on Winona Ryder’s character to off the title characters. 

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