' ' Cinema Romantico: Thoroughbreds

Tuesday, August 07, 2018


The opening shot of “Thoroughbreds” is a stare down between woman and beast as Amanda (Olivia Cooke) stands across from a wounded racehorse in a medium frame that writer/director Cory Finley holds for a couple beats longer than you might expect. Eventually he cuts to a shot of Amanda wielding a knife, and while we never see what she does with it, we can infer, which is Finley’s overriding modus operandi. The plot turns on Amanda’s friend, or, perhaps more accurately, teenage contemporary, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), deciding to off her onerous stepdad (Paul Sparks), and Finley teases this out for an hour and a half by withholding. In one scene where Lily pulls up a gruesome image on her laptop we deliberately see the computer from behind. And when she leaves the room, the camera nudges forward toward the laptop, making you think, for a second, that it might circle around so that we can see what she was seeing. That doesn’t happen, but the camera’s forward nudge nevertheless piques our curiosity. In other words, Finley’s playing Hitchcock in playing us like a piano.

The auteurist piano playing is necessary because even as Finley ropes us in with his aesthetic, he is conspicuously indifferent to evincing any kind of traditional empathy. Amanda and Lily used to be friends, but had a falling out, and now the latter is supposed to tutor the former in preparation for the SAT, though they spend most of their time sort of verbally picking at and dancing around one another in dialogue that can, occasionally, be sidesplitting. Like Amanda’s observation that she might do better dropping out of college and Steve Jobsing her way through life, which is a kind of dry dig at Steve Jobs always being the beacon of dropout glory. This line, like every other one Cooke speaks, is is entirely dry, which describes her character’s entire disposition, summarized in the way she locks onto whoever she’s looking at with a blank expression so that you’re never completely sure if she’s spaced out or planning your demise. That air is furthered in the way she sets the principal plot in emotion, saying that if Lily dislikes her stepfather so much then she should just kill him. And that’s how Cooke has Amanda say it – by just saying it. You don’t thinks she’s serious, but that’s only because nothing she says sounds all that serious, and even when “Thoroughbreds” becomes serious, and it surely will, it is hard not to think that she’s just f***ing with you.

Upon hearing her faux friend’s suggestion, Lily rejects it, even if Taylor-Joy lets you see that she’s tantalized by it, and once Lily embraces it then Taylor-Joy lets you see that’s she’s not entirely sure about it. That’s more or less the whole dynamic as the movie plays out as Finley’s script is carefully designed to shift the balance from one character to the other so that you are never sure who’s in charge or what each of them truly wants. In this light, Finley’s formal exactness aids the idea that both these young woman are wearing figurative masks, which becomes even more apparent when they bring Tim (Anton Yelchin) into the mix as a potential criminal conspirator. He’s a small-time, really small-time, drug dealer with a despicable past who brays about how one day he’s going to be big time. If Cooke and Taylor-Joy are founts of placid reserve then Yelchin is an oblivious emotional volcano; he rips off his own mask the second he speaks.

Those masks are invaluable to the narrative as it proceeds toward a conclusion you will likely have no trouble guessing, particularly because of all the foreshadowing, though Finely is able to keep you off balance with the power dynamics. Indeed, as one twist appears, another is placed right on top of it, and which is made stunning because of its languid presentation. “Thoroughbreds”, frankly, might have done well to end there, except that it tags the movie with an epilogue and voiceover. This voiceover seems determined to re-calibrate the movie as some sort of commentary on the ills of our vain, vapid society, a commentary which the rest of the movie never takes any care to actually promote. Finley apparently originally envisioned his movie as a play and this voiceover evokes a monologue that a playwright trots out when he/she reaches the work’s end and realizes he/she has failed to actually elucidate whatever theme was percolating in his/her head. If “Thoroughbreds” is Hitchcock then this last scene is “Psycho.”

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Interesting. I thought a lot less of it. Maybe it was intended to be a Heathers-esque commentary on morally bankrupt rich kids, but Heathers was funny. Anton Yelchin is good and adds some life to the proceedings but mostly I found Thoroughbreds facile and boring. (Other than that I liked it. Ha.)