Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley, 2018) is a film that critiques the culture of capitalism writ large, indicting the evils of instrumental reason, instant gratification, and corporate celebrity. It incorporates elements and themes from works as disparate as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012), Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), Roger Avary’s adaptation of another of Brett Easton Ellis’s Bateman novels, The Rules of Attraction (2002), Roman Polanski’s entire oeuvre (1965-present), and Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of our Time (1840!). Yes, one may as well mention also Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988) and Tina Fey’s Mean Girls (2004) while we’re tossing reference salad.
Thoroughbreds was good. Leading up to seeing it I had been worried that it would simply be more nihilist, nothing-means-anything culture-jamming garbage like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was. I can’t tell you how upset I was after I finally got to see the best screenplay Oscar-winning film Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), and I was forced to reconcile the fact that the two movies (Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) came out in the same year and purported to tackle the same subjects. One (Get Out) is a funny, incisive, terrifying masterpiece of a critique of racism and capitalism, and the other (Three Billboards) is a cynical and improbable deflection of the questions of racism, power, misogyny and militarism that focuses instead on meaningless interpersonal one-upmanship. I was offended that Three Billboards lingered in theaters in its ugly tastelessness like a potato growing eyes. God, Get Out was good. Why did that other movie hang around so long?
Thoroughbreds, the movie I am actually writing about in the here-and-now, was good. However, the trailer I saw most often leading up to the film is misleading in important ways. On the one hand, being under a somewhat misbegotten impression of what a movie is going to be about can make the experience of watching a film more enjoyable in proportion to the unpredictability generated by information withheld in a preview. On the other, it may hinder some important interpretation of the film. A trailer may not only offer a false expectation for the narrative framework, but also an easy-to-hold-onto (and hard to shake) interpretive framework that could allow viewers to incorrectly attribute of some of the worst elements of the villain’s behavior to an unrelated cause. What am I talking about? Am I actually going to talk about this movie at all, or am I just going to go on and on about the trailer? Let’s find out!
The trailer introduces the two main protagonists of the film in terms of their emotional capacity. First, the bright yellow block text overlaying the screen reads, “This is Amanda. She Feels Nothing.”
This is followed by ice queen Lily’s appearance on the screen with the accompanying overlay that reads, “This is Lily. She Feels Everything.”
I know this is a trailer. I know it’s just an advertisement, that it’s just designed to get the audience of one movie excited enough to come back to see another one in the very same theater. It’s important to point out, however, that this framing of the story, when taken on its own, is a pretty big red herring. It is not the fact that Lily (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) has feelings that leads to her sociopathic behavior. (By the way, it is Lily, the one with feelings, who is the sociopathic villain of this film.) Rather, it is her lack of desire to heed those feelings, or to engage in empathy, or react to situations in her life or to the people around her in any remotely human way that destroys those closest to her.1
Contrary to what the name of the film would suggest (thoroughbreds in the plural, yeah?), and contrary also to the framing of the film in the trailer above, it is arguable that the film only really has one main protagonist, or that at the very least Lily occupies so much more central a role in the film than Amanda (played by Olivia Cooke) that, if Amanda were to be considered another main protagonist by dint of screen time alone, even then it would be by very distant billing. Amanda actually acts as a paired foil for Lily’s ruthlessness together with the late Anton Yelchin’s character, Tim. Both Amanda and Tim show differing degrees to which instrumental reason and violence can turn on their practitioners when faced with an adversary possessing even fewer scruples. Lily is the adversary to beat among the three moral line-walkers in the film’s triad.
Small-time suburban drug dealer Tim occupies a role similar to that of James Franco’s Alien from Spring Breakers. Alien is first introduced to the Spring Breakers audience as a hip-hop performer who is at peace holding hypnotic sway over delirious throngs at a spring break bacchanal, a kind of American libertarian mystic who believes himself to have unlocked certain secrets of spiritual freedom in the realization of his self-made, if ill-gained, material wealth. Tim, in contrast, is floundering amid the mansions and established wealth of his well-heeled suburban environment. Already cowering under the scrutiny imparted by previous jail time for statutory rape, Tim is the same character as Alien seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Rather than officiating, as Alien did, as high priest in the ritualized blowing off of self-indulgent college kids’ alpha-steam, we are first introduced to Tim as he is getting punched in the face by a high schooler while trying to sell drugs at a party to which he was not invited.
Franco’s Alien believes himself to be, and indeed at first appears to be, a kind of indigenous god-king in the Florida beach backwater colonized once a year by throngs of elite and aspiring college students desperate to sate their appetites for a good time. His actual place in the universe is made clear when he is encouraged to attack his rival head-on by small town girls who are plumbing depths and drives much more dangerous than Alien himself understands on their all-or-nothing spring break quest for kicks. Alien’s demise at these girls’ provocation proves that no one is exempt from the death lurking at the center of American materialism. Alien is undone by forces of ruthlessness from abroad that are bigger than he is, forces that put him in his proper place in the larger order of power and capital.
On the other hand, the small-time drug dealer Tim from Thoroughbreds, while believing in the same ruthless accumulation of capital as does Alien, lives in the stately suburbs of capital’s most steady-handed (read: respectable) and ethically unencumbered practitioners. Despite his aspirations, he understands, living in the shadow of wealth and power as he does, the true stakes of the game, and has taken an honest measure of himself. He is unable to muster the courage to peddle his drugs to any but children, lest he run into competition that would quickly prove too ruthless for him. He is, however, goaded by his lesser form of pride into the unfortunate position of being blackmailed by Lily and Amanda to carry out a hit on Lily’s stepfather. Tim, realizing he is entirely out of his depth when faced with the girls’ senselessly calculated ruthlessness, saves himself by reneging on the deal. Yelchin’s character proves to be the lucky one. Correctly apprehending the gravity of this act of violence, he does not allow himself to be fooled into thinking he could wield the sort of selfish ruthlessness he and the other characters in the film valorize with their shared adulation of outlier disruptor figures like the oft-named and unschooled individualist Steve Jobs. The result of his choice is that he survives. This is where his story diverges from Alien’s. Amanda, on the other hand, suffers a different fate.
Like Carol in Polanski’s Repulsion, Amanda has developed into a stunted kind of young adulthood. Where Repulsion‘s Carol is the victim of past abuse and trauma that renders her unable to process or respond to perceptions of her sexuality, to threats, or to others’ advances in an adult capacity, Amanda has a greater level of awareness of her limitations. She admits she is incapable of feeling emotions. This inability makes her more capable of certain acts of violence, like the botched euthanasia of her lamed horse, an attempted act of mercy gone awry that was misinterpreted by her peer group and the court system as evidence of a criminal streak of cruelty, and for which she has become locally infamous. Polanski’s Carol is undone by the violence she attempts to turn back outward toward the ever-oncoming world of predatory men that is the product of her justifiably warped perception. Amanda is undone by her subscription to the pervasive belief in corporate disruptors and concomitant culture of instant gratification. Despite her awareness of her apparent emotional limitations, her inability to question the backdrop against which her and her peers lives play out allows her to consider that, without any explanation given by Lily, interpersonal violence on the level of the murder of Lily’s stepfather is not only possible, but justifiable whether or not Lily ever proffers a reason. Despite her awareness of her handicap, an awareness that stems from her desire to do good, her lack of an innate ability to process emotion, coupled with the atmosphere of her social milieu’s ambient adoration for capitalist disruptors and their ethically challenged brand of pirated success makes her more susceptible to the malign intentions of her sociopathic and homicidal friend. It makes her, unlike Tim (but very much like Carol in Repulsion), unable to grasp the gravity or the inhuman undoing power of violence.
It turns out that Lily, the well-heeled stepdaughter of conspicuously physically active and comically unlikable alpha-male-type Mark (whose odiousness is shorthanded by a photo of himself with a lion shot on safari and and a staged photo in kendo training garb while wielding an actual samurai sword), continuously seeks to harness others to commit acts of violence on her behalf for the gratification of getting her own way. As a social outcast, Amanda trusts her sociopathic friend Lily to a fault. In so doing, she perhaps betrays the real presence of emotion she feels stemming from the trauma of having to euthanize her own beloved horse. She, unbidden, conveniently provides the rationale for Lily’s stepfather’s murder by giving the only condition under which it would be possible: that it would “make the world a better place.” Amanda needs for there to be a “good” reason for violence, but this proves an insufficient safeguard against being coerced into doing the wrong thing.
Lily does not correct her friend’s incorrect surmise of her motivations. In fact, the only reason Lily wants to kill her stepfather is that she wants to kill her stepfather. He represents a minor inconvenience on her path to returning to boarding school after being expelled for an act of plagiarism for which she is not remotely conciliatory, and he poses a mildly annoying sensory presence in the house due to the racket from his exercise machine.
The atmosphere of unquestioned instrumental reason that tinctures the air the girls grew up breathing allows the ranking of some lives as inherently more worthwhile than others, and this is the avenue by which Lily is able to perform the crucial act of coercing Amanda into allowing herself to be accomplice to Lily’s stepfather’s murder. Lily manipulatively asks Amanda whether she doesn’t wonder if her life is not worth living because she’s incapable of feeling happiness. The foregrounding of the value of the fleeting, often impossible, and addictive sensation of “happiness,” leads Amanda to the conclusion that her life is, in fact, not worth living, and she agrees to be drugged and take the fall for the murder Lily is about to commit. She self-aware enough to understand she has emotional limitations, but she is unequipped to proceed with enough skepticism to question the value scheme against which her friend is asking her to appraise her life, let alone whether it is possible that her friend’s will to kill her stepfather can do anything but produce a net good in the universe. The radical capitalist propaganda that forms the background noise of these girls’ development is crucial to the success of sociopaths like Lily in carrying out their whims at others’ expense. So it is that Lily is able to victimize both her stepfather and her trusting, if creepily emotionally flat, friend Amanda in the course of getting what she wants.
To return to my criticism of the film preview begun above, because we do live in an atmosphere of easy solutions and received interpretations that is inimical to the deep critique of those things with which we come face to face on a daily basis, the preview’s insinuation that having feelings may have something crucial to do with the criminality that is clearly at the core of the film’s narrative is a ready-made framework of interpretation that runs directly counter to the movie’s overall arc and intent. The far more dangerous character is the one who allows others around her to think she has feelings, while in her cold calculation and ruthless drives she actually harbors no remotely human sensitivity to them within her. It is, after all, only the professedly emotionally bereft Amanda we ever see smile in the film. And when she does, though she is woefully unsuccessful in her bid, it is because she wants to exercise the freedom to make the effort to be good despite the fact that she lives in an environment that only rewards the bad. Contrary to the ready-made frame of interpretation provided by the marketing for the movie, feelings and people who know how to feel them are what the movie says we need more of. They’re not the problem. Feelings aren’t the pathology. Being human is not the problem here. What the movie is saying, to recall that aforementioned photo of Mark, Lily’s stepdad, posing with a lion he had killed, is that a culture that neutralizes empathy and valorizes competition for private gain elects the poacher president of the nature preserve, and that makes the rest of us prey.