Widgets Magazine
Cory Finley’s ‘Thoroughbreds’ is thoroughly disquieting
Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke in "Thoroughbreds." (Courtesy of Focus Features)

Cory Finley’s ‘Thoroughbreds’ is thoroughly disquieting

Much of the violence in “Thoroughbreds” occurs offscreen, and so does the film’s critique of class. Set in the world of New England’s elite, the movie’s oblique black comedy is sometimes too subtle to make a fatal stab at America’s innocuous ideas of its own bourgeoise. But as in the best thrillers, true anxiety is best manifested through the imagination. What is left for privileged Stanford students to think about is enough to summon more than a little unease.

The movie’s aforementioned visual subtlety is probably a result of its former life as a play script. Taking place mostly in one set and featuring a small cast, the story follows Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), two estranged childhood friends who reunite in high school when Amanda comes to Lily’s spacious Connecticut mansion for an SAT tutoring session. Despite the fact that both girls come from wealthy families, Amanda is a bit of an outcast: perhaps it’s because she’s recently taken it on herself to euthanize her prized racing horse; perhaps it’s because she literally feels no emotion, practicing smiles in the mirror and teaching herself how to cry. Lily, in contrast, is the tightly-wound prep-school type, whose perfectly tailored wardrobe obscures her tendency to lose her cool. Her trigger is usually her stepfather, Mike (Paul Sparks), who, in addition to being generally cold and controlling, is gutting Lily’s academic dreams by pulling her out of Andover and putting her into a reform school for girls. Eventually, a strange friendship rekindles between Amanda and Lily, and after hearing about Amanda’s incident with her racing horse, the logic for Lily becomes clear: with Amanda’s help, Lily can solve her life problems by killing her stepfather.

In the darkly comedic film that follows, director Cory Finley often shows his hand as a playwright, allowing the environment to be created through suggestion rather than gratuitous visuals. When Amanda arrives at Lily’s home for the first time, the camerawork expertly captures the creepy linger of Amanda’s emotionless gaze, slowly moving from room to room until the mansion becomes an eerie labyrinth of polished oak and crystal chandeliers. The sound design and soundtrack, helmed by Roland Vajs and Erik Friedlander, respectively, help add to the dread; as these teenage girls spiral deeper into a web of murder and intrigue, their anxious interiorities are transformed into glassy music and noises that brush up uncomfortably close against your ear, until we can hear the squish of footsteps on a lawn from far away, or the hum of an erg machine on the second floor of the house through the ceiling.

The acting is likewise understated, but also powerful and fun to watch. Cooke is magnetic as the affectless Amanda, believably taking on her deadpan stare and scruffy looks until we forget how pretty and poised the actress can appear at first glance. Taylor-Joy’s performance is similarly arresting, allowing something tremulous and slightly deranged to surface beneath Lily’s good-girl posture and beguiling eyes. When the diametrically-opposed pair come together, there’s an instant chemistry as each girl simultaneously power-plays and watches out for the other, and it’s a shame that Finley sometimes forgoes developing their relationship in favor of navigating the (admittedly fun, but) complicated thriller plot.

Despite Finley’s confident debut as filmmaker, the story of “Thoroughbreds” never quite bursts the myth of America as meritocracy, playing out more like two girls with a vendetta rather than pawns caught in a system that’s unfairly favoring the rich. Finley certainly wants to make some sort of critique as we follow the incredibly wealthy Amanda and Lily in their effort to murder Lily’s incredibly wealthy stepfather. In a scene in Lily’s backyard, Amanda and Lily play a giant game of chess while wearing fashionable shades, lugging stone pieces across the grass, and their excessive labor is comical, perhaps paralleling the arbitrary power structures that the wealthy create to benefit themselves. In addition, Amanda’s lack of emotions means that she’s completely selfless in her support for Lily’s murderous agenda. Lily exploits this generosity, giving us a chance to villainize the capitalist demands that are forcing Lily to fail the most innocent. Lily’s stepfather, however, is truly calculating and verbally abusive. More often than not, we sympathize with Lily’s predicament rather than see her as a satirical representation of the American elite. Although this makes her more interesting as a character, it also means that Finley’s message on class lacks bite.

Without making a direct statement about the most privileged among of us, “Thoroughbreds” is slick, but politically lukewarm. Yet, a moment of thematic clarity comes from a cryptic scene near the end of the film, in which Amanda tells the story of a dream she has where horses overtake their Connecticut neighborhood. Here, we are asked to imagine the austerity of New England royalty in contrast to the unbridled physicality of the animals that they so often try to tame. Relayed in Amanda’s emotionless monotone, the startling image may be enough to at least raise a few goosebumps as we navigate our own carefully curated, privileged spaces, nudging us to think more critically about the way we conceptualize class on our campus and in America.

Contact AnQi Yu at anqiyu ‘at’ stanford.edu.