Thoroughbreds Is a Cult Film in Search of Its Cult
Thoroughbreds, the debut film by 28-year-old playwright, writer, and director Cory Finley, has the general aura of a “cult film.” That is to say, Finley’s comedic thriller feels like it was wrought lovingly in the image of what a certain kind of “cult film” has looked like historically–part of a vague, loosely unified tradition of B-movies bearing elements of kitsch and warped humor. The movie centers around a relationship between two walking provocations of characters: spoiled boarding school overachiever Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her sociopathic childhood friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke), now a disgraced equestrian. Reunited in Connecticut for forced standard-test tutoring, Amanda persuades Lily to open up the darker and more honest side of her personality. They zero in on Lily’s simmering resentment of her stentorian and verbally abusive stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) and set off a barbarous chain of events. Also involved in their plan is Tim (Anton Yelchin), a hapless, 20-something drug dealer who relies on prep schoolers for his business and dreams of a lavish life as an entrepreneur.
There have been arguments about what film Thoroughbreds, which was a 2017 hit at Sundance, most reminds people of. The most frequent point of comparison is 1989’s Heathers, a bloody farce about a troubled young couple’s brutal reaction to the oppressive social hierarchy of their high school. The inescapable trailer and social media tagline for Thoroughbreds is Indiewire’s “American Psycho meets Heathers,” and the characterization has become prevalent enough to lead to a backlash. Curiously, Thoroughbreds’ release came the week that the new, widely maligned Heathers reboot TV series was supposed to premiere, with its positioning of social justice warrior types and marginalized groups as the protagonists’ hypocritical illuminati to be reckoned with.
While there are similarities to the playfully farcical and more camp-horror-oriented Heathers, Thoroughbreds brings other films to mind more strongly–most positively, Claude Chabrol’s excellent, female-driven 1995 home invasion movie La Ceremonie, which culminates in a bourgeoisie-smashing conclusion. Finley’s movie also has commonalities with Yorgos Lanthimos’s sadistic psychological horror film The Killing of a Sacred Deer from last year. Thankfully, however, Thoroughbreds is not as serious, glacially paced, or deliriously pretentious. Both movies are messy ruminations on millennial disaffection, which bristles against the fake social propriety of older generations. Both also hinge on vindictive, emotionless instigator characters (Barry Keoghan in Sacred Deer, Cooke in Thoroughbreds) who infiltrate and create discord within households more functional and prosperous than their own.
Like Heathers, Thoroughbreds is a comedic thriller more than a self-serious horror film–a relatively simple story about a twisted friendship and the wicked ends to which the anger of a few bored rich kids leads. Even with its brevity and modest goals, Finley’s movie allows room for humor, unexpected twists, and clear thematic morsels to chew on. Amanda’s character, in particular, betrays Finley’s background in the theater. Her climactic monologue, which contemplates the crumbling of society in the age of consumer technology, recalls a famous speech in Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act, neo-absurdist play The Zoo Story. Like the murderous love-hate relationship that Albee’s nihilistic jester Jerry carries on with his landlady’s dog, Victoria’s obsession with her former horse becomes a symbol for the failed possibility of meaningful human connection and social progress. These sorts of symbols and cosmic sentiments make Thoroughbreds a perfect film for younger and angrier viewers as well as older buffs of ‘70s and ‘80s psychological thrillers.
Overall, Thoroughbreds’ most effective quality is its unabashed contemporariness, not the cues it takes from past films. Both Amanda and the scraggly and ineffectual Tim (Yelchin) talk about Steve Jobs reverently, as a kind of implicit model for their warped strategies in life: a slacker who beat the system by staying ahead of the curve and thinking smarter than his competition. Jobs also acted unequivocally, and without getting hung up on sentiment. He seems to embody the axiom Amanda uses to justify her brutality: “You cannot hesitate. The only thing worse than being incompetent, or being unkind, or being evil, is being indecisive.”
Though both Amanda and Tim hate the values of their upper-class ecosystem, they also aspire to earn their own self-made position within it. Amanda eventually abandons hope in her own role as anything other than a “skill enabler” for those more self-obsessed to get ahead. But Tim, the lackey in the young women’s criminal plan, longs for the casual super-wealth and social clout that he grew up around. A brief scene of him sensually stroking the most expensive items in Mark’s mansion to “Ave Maria” is an enjoyable diversion here. However, as a member of a generation with fewer stable and codified routes toward advancement, he has no clear idea of how to regain that status on his own terms. With the climb too steep to ponder, he falls back on half-baked get-rich-quick plans. It almost comes as a surprise that he never pitches a misbegotten app idea during the movie.
Mark got what Tim wants the old-fashioned way. He is the self-made businessman struggling daily for boilerplate physical self-betterment and preserving his strange dominance over his own dominion. The rubbery thunder from his erg machine is an omnipresent reminder of his dead-eyed work ethic, a constant storm cloud hovering over Lily and Amanda as they idly watch TV. “We’re not all your maids and personal trainers,” he tells Lily, spitefully, while threatening to take her off his “payroll” after her boarding school days are through. At times, Lily is Thoroughbreds’ most sympathetic primary character, but we take his point: academically, financially, and in the crime plan the film centers around, her primary method of achieving progress is manipulating others into doing her bidding. Mark lords her financial reliance on him over her and inflames her hatred.
The culminating events in Thoroughbreds occur because the movie’s main characters, like so many misanthropic teen antiheroes before them, feel like they are stuck in a moment they can’t get out of. Dissatisfied and angry with their lot in life, they hone in on a righteous, vindictive act to get ahead. If Heathers instigator J.D.’s (Christian Slater) motivations are anti-capitalist-–insofar as his high school’s hierarchy is an extension of a capitalist value set—Amanda works within the system, believing only in being smarter than everyone else in the room and people taking what they want when they want it. Everyone in the movie is motivated by greed, taking the path of least resistance to advancing themselves economically and socially. As Finley put it in a recent interview, money “seeps into the ways they know how to relate to one another. In a capitalist system, there develops a hierarchy to everything, even social interaction.”
The main pitfall of Thoroughbreds, like many of the works of art it seems to be informed by, is that it relates to the vicious societal mechanisms of its time period without offering any particular insight about them. There’s a place for such work, of course. And it feels good, especially these days, to revel in a dark, cruel little film with some laughs that essentially argues: “The world is fucked, man.” (The less touted Ingrid Goes West, one of my favorite movies of last year, did this on several levels, and with more jokes.) The overall sentiment of Thoroughbreds –transparent despite Finley’s frequent attempts at stylizing and encrypting it into something that seems stranger or more substantial–will invigorate viewers who regularly feel some unstable combination of debilitatingly cynical and thoroughly lost. Whether it will persist and take on new meaning over time, in the mode of a Heathers-like “cult” item, remains to be seen.
There are distinct winners and losers at the end of Thoroughbreds, just like in the aftermath of some aggressive, predatory financial contest. The winner absconds with the spoils, and the losers are left alone with their dreams. Ultimately, one of the losers is left with a simplistic and borderline cornball dream: of a technology-less, investment-bank-free future Western world. In it, there is an image of Greenwich crumbling and being rebuilt. It’s not deep stuff, but it also feels appropriate, in that it reads like what it’s supposed to be: something a depressed kid would write in their diary. It might sound kind of dumb, but we can’t pretend that many of us don’t get hung up on similar questions in these bewildering times.