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?

I digress.

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.”

Thoroughbreds, Dir. Cory Finley, 2018 Focus Features

This is followed by ice queen Lily’s appearance on the screen with the accompanying overlay that reads, “This is Lily. She Feels Everything.”

Thoroughbreds, Dir. Cory Finley, 2018 Focus Features

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.

James Franco as Alien in Spring Breakers, Dir. Harmony Korine, 2012 A24

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.

Anton Yelchin as Tim, Thoroughbreds, Dir. Cory Finley, 2018 Focus Features

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.

Catherine Deneuve as Carol, Repulsion, Dir. Roman Polanski, 1965, Criterion Collection

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.

Adventures in Moviegoing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag for the arthouse crowd. What a black, cynical, nihilist drink of darkness. What a shitty imitation of art.

RoboGeisha – Butt Swords Against the Dystopian March Toward a Right-Wing Future

There’s a new movie out from the director of the very, very good ‘Machine Girl’, Noboru Iguchi, and Yoshihiro Nishimura, the special effects guy from ‘Tokyo Gore Police.’

Boasting “Geisha missile, geisha dance, geisha army, geisha chainsaw, geisha harakiri, acid breast milk, fried shrimp, handicap gun (my favorite)” and so much more, this is incontrovertibly the must-see release of the year.

It shows Tuesday, May 18 at the Japan Society in New York.  Too bad that’s when I see PIL.  Tix at this link.

This week in cinema

Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story

First aired on VH1 in July, 2001, Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story hit all the plucky young working class blokes work hard and get it right success story buttons, taking care to offer an easy to digest gloss on how a bunch of good friends who just love good times and hard work can let a little success and excess go to their heads and perhaps even cause them to roll what appears to be a 1987 Chevrolet Corvette over in an English meadow at 88 glorious LED indicated miles per hour, severing one’s arm in the process.  Yea, this genre, whose special purpose was to assuage the guilt and mixed feelings of looking back on the narcissistic and blissfully unaware good times of the eighties, could well have been the poultice that hid and detoxified the psychic wounds of the liberal West long enough for us to charge ahead into the 2000s, unironically looking forward to a 180g vinyl triple gatefold Bobby McFerrin comeback LP.

Unfortunately, not 2 months later, certain events occurred in September of 2001 that would render it seemingly impossible for anyone but the baby boomers to continue to effectively rehabilitate their legacies through cinema.  The cheerful gloss put on such topics as a deadly case of alcoholism, the innocent and apolitical acceptance of a worldview that had no problem putting individuals firmly in the “have” column in the global tally of the “haves” and “have-nots” as a reward for public overindulgence in good times and conditioner, these things would soon take a backseat to a polarizing case of the terrors that would strip the paint right off society and take us, unfortunately, back to the right-wing primer coat while American culture went up on blocks in the world’s front yard.

This 2001 gem of a biopic was released at generally the same time as another frank, straight-talking coming to grips meditation on our collective insanity, the Mark “Marky-Mark” Walberg and Jennifer Aniston vehicle Rock StarRock Star (a movie I do enjoy thoroughly), was actually given an unfortunately timed release in the month of September, 2001.  Can you imagine?  Just as we were just beginning to connect the dots between our troubled ’90s inner Eddie Vedders and the crimped and blow-dryed blonde ’80s angels of our natures, we had to put the all the chuckling “those were crazy days” reminiscences aside to join the rest of America in being scared shitless.

Only now, almost 10 years on, do we have someone like Lady Ga-Ga—medicine woman, shaman— who can finally make us feel mindlessly good about ourselves again.  Thanks, Hope!  Thanks, socially splintering new media!  Let the Hair Metal Ideal Truth and Reconciliation Committee reconvene, with Lady Gaga shepherding the lost offenders of the ’80s into her folds to bear the standard that will unite us in all we have been meaning to recuse ourselves from for the past 30 years.  Let it begin here with your own private screening of Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story, starring Anthony Michael Hall.  You’ve suffered for it, motherfuckers.  Now take your reward.

Miniskirts, Fishnets, Sexy Mutants, and the Cleaving Swords of the Ronin Capitalist State

Shoko Nakahara stars in Yoshihiro Nishimura’s 2008 tour-de-abattoir Tokyo Gore Police (Tokyo Zankoku Keisatsu) as the hard-nosed avenger of decency without mercy Ruka.  Preternaturally calm, dangerously certain of her purpose and her use of the katana in the black and white battle between criminal indecency and the directives of the privatized Tokyo Police Corporation, Ruka is a little death fashionably decked out in a miniskirt and fishnet stockings, the call-girl of justice tossing the most hardened criminals into the icy salad of divine retribution.

[singlepic id=8 w=320 h=240 float=]

Japan’s police and self-defense forces were privatized during Ruka’s youth under the auspices of a single draconian for-profit agency whose shock troops resemble something between armored, war-ready samurai and Darth Vader, a change in course in society the initial contestation of which has been deliberately buried in the past by those powers who stood to profit most from it.

This proves to be a crucial detail in the development of Ruka’s life, for the Terry Gilliam-esque former tracheotomy patient wearing the horned helmet with the external car stereo speaker affixed to his badged armor is the man who, as chief of police, stood to gain the most power from disposing of the more socially-minded cop leading the privatization opposition- Ruka’s father.  That this was done before the impressionable eyes of this girl he then raised among the police as his daughter, that the assassin he hired to clear the field of his opposition and publicly executed was the father of a brilliant genetic engineer studying the heredity of criminality is key- it is the self-serving action that at once created a ronin state of arbitrarily unchecked police aggression in the service of order and the same moment forged that state’s arch-enemy, the Key Man.  It also birthed the one warrior who would be the undoing of the whole system.

[singlepic id=7 w=320 h=240 float=]

Key man is the creator of a parasitic virus culled from the DNA of the world’s most notorious serial killers, a key-shaped tumor that causes any wound inflicted on the infected to mutate into a deadly weapon.  During the movie’s course of corpse production from conflict to resolution, Penes, pudenda, breasts, bellybuttons, really all the best stuff is transformed into a high-pressure blood-hosing instrument of gore.  These augmented augerers hosting the mutation-inducing tumors of anti-humanity are dubbed “engineers.”

When the police declare an all-out war on the population in an attempt to eliminate the engineers, the truth, that the chief hired the man who killed her father, is revealed to a virus-infected Ruka.  She single-handedly wipes out the police force and takes her revenge on the man who raised her, even as he flies about the room enhanced by drugs that cause gravity-defying jets of blood to fire from the stumps of his legs.

I should mention that, marring the progress of the movie is a scene of anti-Chinese nationalism that really doesn’t add anything to the story, leaving me with a bad taste on the iron-coated walls of my mouth.

The film is intercut with bizarre and hilarious PSAs for the new privatized police force, the reduction of workplace hara-kiri, cute accessory box-knifes for high-school aged cutter gyaru, and swords advertised for the same purpose on a “Call Now!” basis, all while this vixen of an S/M Marilyn perfectly amputated from her Norma Jean, a cross between a DJ and a police dispatcher, broadcasts whilst dancing to an amazing Japanese rock soundtrack her frenzied bloodthirsty dispatches.

[singlepic id=6 w=320 h=240 float=]

For blood or for pizza, the axes swing when she sings.

Appearances Matter: Another ’68 Retrosective

I just read in the Times this morning that, in addition to the Godard’s ’60s series playing out this week and into the summer at Film Forum, there’s an international series of films being put on at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Entitled simply 1968 , it’s a film record of the sentiment, urgency, and power of that peculiar time, so alien 40 years on. It began yesterday, and carries on through May 14th.

2 Great Retrospectives Coming up at Film Forum

From June 20 to August 7, Film forum is going to be dishing out, by my count, 25 movies starring leading man Tatsuya Nakadai. Appallingly, I have seen all of none of these movies, but I have a chance to fix that now. I’m especially looking forward to seeing him play Natsume Soseki in “I Am a Cat.” As the Film Forum folks (FFF) have so elegantly put it,

With his starring roles in bona fide classics by Kurosawa and Kobayashi, and multiple leading parts for masters as disparate in style and subject matter as Naruse, Okamoto, Gosha, Teshigahara, Kinoshita, and the late Kon Ichikawa, Nakadai’s career provides a core sample right through the heart of the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema.

Details on this found here by clicking on Nakadai’s handsome mug:


If you were inclined to follow that link, then you would have noticed that the first page of the PDF was devoted to outlining the schedule of a retrospective of Godard’s ’60s. Having only seen Alphaville, I think, of all his films still out there circulating and churning with all those images, reproduced everywhere, of that particularly French mind-destroying femininity, I am excited to be able correct the deficit in my learning. Particularly motivating is La Chinoise, which Netflix doesn’t carry and my local, definitively non-yokel hipster video store also doesn’t have on its shelves. Starring a young future Mme. Godard, it follows a young group of ’60s hipsters who form a Maoist cell through the travails of being young and hot and boojie and forming a maoist cell, I would imagine. I’m imaging a French New-wave episode of Friends adapted for the big screen, a bunch of idealistic kids who wish they could have been Futurists but, for reasons of temporal nativity and philosophical fortitude in the end were just part of that whole exciting decade whose anticlimax paved the way for our awareness of virtuality.


Culture! Man, we got a lot of it here. Summer is rolling out of its hibernatory grotto and the flowering mind raises its pistils.