by Meagen Tajalle | January 18, 2021
Thoroughbreds (2017) opens with a shot of seventeen-year-old Amanda (Olivia Cooke) staring at her horse, Honeymooner, in its moonlit stable. Amanda takes a knife out of her bag, and the silver blade reflects a glint of light. This scene suggests the film to be a neo-noir, but the sequences that follow do not rely upon such stark visual contrast. Instead, writer-director Cory Finley is primarily interested in the metaphorical dichotomy between light and dark: good versus evil. But despite Finley’s background as a playwright, his feature debut is far from a morality play — which is precisely what makes it so compelling.
Upon the film’s release, this remarkably confident debut was widely reviewed not for what the film was, but for what it was not. Most critics expected the setting of an uber-wealthy Connecticut suburb to bring along with it a scathing critique of wealth and privilege in America, with Vulture’s Emily Yoshida concluding that, “If Thoroughbreds was about class in any kind of thoughtful way, it might accidentally stumble into something to say.” But Finley never promised that, nor did he set out to make a broad social commentary on class. It is because of this that his film excels in attentively fulfilling its compelling premise, and offers thrills and surprises along the way.
When Amanda and her childhood friend and current SAT tutor, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) devise a plan to kill Lily’s stepfather (Paul Sparks), the two girls play to each others’ strengths and cover each others’ weaknesses as they embark on a meticulous murder plot that quickly veers off course.
Conventional screenwriting wisdom dictates that a protagonist’s goal must be clearly motivated, and because of this many revenge thrillers use violence as a crutch to efficiently turn women into heroes or antiheroes. A lesser writer would have felt obligated to write Mark as an abusive stepfather to Lily in order to justify the depth of her anger, but Mark is not physically abusive. He’s just a major asshole. It is immensely refreshing to bear witness to a young woman’s rage that is not rooted in victimization. Instead, the root of Lily’s wrath lies in self-respect, a trait adolescent girls are rarely afforded in movies.
Finley also avoids the trope of making the audience fear for the female protagonist. During the scene that comes closest to justifying Lily’s murder plot, her stepfather launches into an eerily level-headed and belittling lecture. We empathize with her, we are enraged on her behalf, and at the end of the scene we see that Amanda was standing just feet away, out of Mark’s view, holding a kitchen knife like she was prepared to use it.
Throughout the film, Lily and Amanda sit on either side of the large couch in Lily’s vast living room, anchoring opposite sides of symmetrical two shots. But this distance is not meant to communicate an absence of emotional closeness, because the intimacy between these two characters isn’t physical. Instead, it lies in their unabashed honesty with each other.
Lily first becomes fascinated by the forwardness of Amanda’s unfiltered remarks when Amanda admits that she doesn’t experience emotions in the way that the people around her do. Lily is confused, a little bit horrified, and totally transfixed. When Amanda discovers Lily’s disdain for Mark, Lily resists the line of questioning while Amanda accuses her of only inviting her over to upset Mark. Lily pushes back and asks, “Why don’t you ask your mom to go buy you another friend?” Then she stares, petrified, and waits for a reciprocal outburst. It doesn’t come. Amanda tells her, “It’s the first honest thing you’ve said to me since 6th grade.”
Although at first Amanda’s unemotional forwardness makes Lily uncomfortable, once Lily discovers the freedom of unfiltered interaction, she and Amanda begin to find an unconventional conversational rhythm. When talking to each other, they step on each other’s words to extract meaning, and leave long pauses in search of the truths that cannot be spoken.
These girls don’t necessarily like each other, but Lily gets a clear adrenaline rush when she speaks to Amanda the way Amanda speaks to everyone else. While Lily is clearly exhausted by the facade required by the many obligations and expectations that come with generational wealth and privilege, Amanda simply lacks the hardware to construct such a facade. Lily discovers things she could never before admit to herself as she says them out loud to Amanda. Amanda, on the other hand, discovers that she is finally able to say so many things she has always known to be true about herself and about the people she has astutely observed since childhood in order to imitate their inner lives and emotional responses. Cooke is endlessly watchable as she embodies emotional absence, one of many facets that is a gift to both audience and actor.
Erik Friedlander’s score is one that could only exist in a post-Gone Girl media landscape, percussion-driven and with much sharper edges than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ compositions. The score centers the audience in the film’s suburban setting, to mind the equally biting music in the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, as Friedlander discards middle-impact sounds. Everything we hear is either on the very low or very high end of the sonic spectrum. Some tracks even sound like disembodied screams — some extended, some cut short by screeching strings. But when we finally reach the climax of the second act, there is no score. As the camera pushes in slowly, all the more eerie because it is in no rush, the film does not burst, it breathes.
As Lily reckons with the depth of her anger and Amanda navigates consuming apathy, it is clear to the audience that their privilege has allowed for their mistakes. The film, however, is unburdened by morality. If Thoroughbreds adopted a moral compass diametrically opposed to those of its main characters, it would be forced to distance itself from the refreshing complexities that set it apart from other genre films.
In place of the genre’s typical grit, Thoroughbreds has gloss — but this polish is not to be envied. At the end of the film, Amanda narrates a recurring dream in which she is Honeymooner, a thoroughbred stallion. In the dream, she watches over their suburb while generations of residents build bigger and bigger houses and are eventually literally sucked into their smartphones. When the suburb is people-free at last, the horses roam around “with no owners, no memory of owners, and no memory of knowing how expensive they are.” Amanda dreams of existence that is free from what one is “meant” to be; she dreams of a life where expectations are not assigned at birth.