I already slept on The Love Witch, Anna Biller’s superbly stylized 2016 film about a witch addicted to love—it’s on Amazon Prime, so we can all get caught up—and I almost missed Thoroughbreds, so it is with the determination of not missing another offbeat genre flick about a couple of non-conforming young women that I am demanding everyone see Thoroughbreds. It’s the absurdly confident and precise feature film debut of Cory Finley, and features two grand slam performances, from Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl).
Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) are both denizens of a tony Connecticut town, and both are home from boarding school. Amanda is home awaiting trial for animal cruelty for performing a, let’s call it DIY horse euthanasia. (As someone who grew up riding that was a difficult plot point to process, it’s not graphic but Amanda has a monologue about it, so use your own judgment in that regard.) Lily, meanwhile, is at home for the comparatively lesser charge of plagiarizing a paper at Andover. These are not naturally sympathetic characters—wealthy, privileged, and in Amanda’s case, cruel—but Thoroughbreds makes no attempt to sympathize with them. In fact, the entire film is premised on how awful they are, and how far that moral turpitude truly extends.
Amanda actually does have one point of understanding—she did something unspeakably awful, but she also has some sort of disorder. Once upon a time, she would have been called a “sociopath”, but these days her therapist is just working through the DSM5 until she finds something to describe Amanda’s emotional vacuum. She doesn’t experience emotions, and Amanda has reckoned with that, seemingly content in her void. Her former friend Lily, however, is just a teen girl dealing with a new stepdad she does not like. The two reconnect when Amanda’s mom pays Lily to hang out with Amanda under the pretense of studying for the SAT. At first, Lily is creeped out, but soon Amanda’s blasé acceptance pulls Lily into her emotional black hole.
Thoroughbreds, not unlike Annihilation, has a horror movie skeleton, but it’s not really horror movie. Or, it’s not JUST a horror movie. Erik Friedlander’s score clangs and thrums like a monster is looming just out of sight, but the only monster is the enormous, insulating privilege these girls have. Lily expresses a desire to get rid of her hated stepfather, Amanda, a cobra, wonders why not just do it. Eventually Lily, mesmerized, decides to do it. Their first course of action? Bribe a local drug dealer to do it for them. Enter Tim (Anton Yelchin, and it really says something about the scope and demand for Yelchin’s talent that it’s been two years since his untimely death and he still has movies coming out), a working class townie working a sh*t job and dealing to boarding school brats for extra money. Tim dreams of making it and driving sleek cars like his student customers, but you know how the world works. The deck is stacked against Tim.
Class is at the heart of Thoroughbreds. Lily might be out of Andover, but her step-dad can buy her way into another boarding school. Amanda is going on trial but the reality is, she will probably get a slap on the wrist, probation and tons of counseling. Wealth insulates these girls from real consequence, and it affords them the prospect of hiring out their murder plot. Things do not go as planned, but that does not derail their scheme. There is always more capital—money, social, emotional—to be spent. And even if Tim does succeed in moving up the class ladder, he will never reach the level into with Amanda and Lily are born. That’s a world so removed from his he can’t understand Amanda and Lily as fellow human beings, because they don’t seem like actual human beings. They might as well be living on another planet from Tim.
Thoroughbreds has been drawing comparisons to Heathers, but the likeness ends at “spoiled high school girls do something bad”. Thoroughbreds is not about high school, or even youth, really, it’s about class and privilege and the kind of solipsism that breeds. That self-centered focus is echoed in Finley’s direction, his cameras often pointed one at a time at the girls in long, sustained takes, where they fill the frame as they fill their own world view. So go see Thoroughbreds. Don’t miss it. It’s a thought-provoking class fable dressed up like a high school horror movie with blackly comic tones, and Amanda and Lily are not your average mean girls.