Thoroughbreds

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.

It’s Been Done Before

For the past few months I have been slowly wending my way through Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge (Picador, 2017), Daniel Rachel’s oral history of the Red Wedge, Rock Against Racisim (RAR), and 2 Tone youth music and cultural movements that arose to oppose Thatcherism, nationalism, racism, and fascism in the UK of the 1970s and ’80s. Blame moves and other unpleasantries for the extra time taken to read such an engaging book. What is so wonderful and important about this book chronicling the social movement that galvanized, in part, after a racist speech Eric Clapton delivered, is that it succeeds in establishing the political power and the importance of cultural movements undertaken by ordinary, ethically motivated individuals off the street, and it also in clarifies the possibility and real efficacy such grassroots cultural movements can bring to bear on the constant struggle against fascism, nationalism, and alienation advanced by late neoliberal capitalism.

Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge by Daniel Rachel

The book follows the format famously employed by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in their oral history of New York-centric Punk, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove/Atlantic 1996/2016). In Rachel’s book, interviews with a pantheon of scene personages, demiurges, and provocateurs of the British Punk and social progressive scenes are edited together thematically and chronologically to tell a cohesive story, wherein a Socialist Workers Party operative’s narrative thread will be woven into the tale spun by musicians from bands like Steel Pulse or Stiff Little Fingers, then patched back into into firsthand testimony from Rock Against Racism event organizers and spearheads. In McNeil and McCain’s book, however, the political background of and impetus

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

for the American musical and cultural history that was being made by the American punk-rockers whose scene Please Kill Me chronicles only seldom manages to emerge, and then only incidentally. An example of this is Dennis Thompson’s short description of the MC5’s experience fleeing the police violence at the concert held at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:

“When I saw all those cops, the only thing I could think was, Jesus Christ, if this is the revolution, we lost…Chicago was supposed to be a show of solidarity, goddamn it. This is the alternative culture? Come on. Where were the other bands? No one showed up but us. That’s what pissed me off. I knew the revolution was over at that moment—I looked over my shoulder, and no one else was there. We were the ones who were gonna get hanged. I said, “This is it. There ain’t no revolution. It doesn’t exist. It’s bullshit. The movement is dead”1

And perhaps the reason that even this minor irruption of the actually political made it onto the pages of McNeil and McCain’s book is that it carried such a nihilist, even cynical tone; As filmmaker Adam Curtis points out in his film Hypernormalisation, a documentary history of our amnesiac era of neoliberalism, the portion of the American Punk scene featured in Please Kill Me is the same arts scene he critiques for embracing a radical, apolitical individualism that includes artists and hipsters such as Patti Smith admiring the decay of society as though from afar.

In contrast, despite the fact that Rachel may have availed himself of the same device for organizing and presenting the story of punk in the UK as did McNeil and McCain in their book about punk in the U.S., Rachel’s is an overtly political, socially and politically engaged, and hopeful undertaking. The weight of the verisimilitude imparted by the documentary collage style of the book isn’t used merely to give the reader a titillating thrill at being on hand as spectator to the anarchic excesses of rock ‘n roll lifestyles, but instead to clearly make the point that there was another time and place where the right wing, fueled and encouraged by the policies of neoliberalism, made a public push to normalize xenophobia, homophobia, racism, reactionary violence, and institutionally imposed inequality, and this wave was pushed back by the persevering application of simple, if staunch, humanity. It is a book that shows that the destabilization of society on the cultural and institutional levels such as we are witnessing in the United States today has happened before in Western societies within very recent living memory, and that there is the real possibility that such debasement of the public sphere can be definitively repulsed through cultural engagement. As visionary songwriter and firebrand Billy Bragg, speaking about his experience of the Anti-Nazi League/RAR-organized Victoria Park Carnival concert of April 30, 1978, puts it:

We were standing under a banner that said ‘Gays Against the Nazis’ and when Tom sang Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay, all these blokes around us started kissing each other on the lips. I’d never seen an out gay man before. My immediate thought was, ‘What are they doing here? This is about black people.’ And literally in the course of that afternoon I came to realize that actually the fascists were against anybody who was in any way different and just liking black music and being a punk rocker was sufficiently different for the National Front to be the enemy. I realized this was how my generation were going to define themselves, in opposition to discrimination of all kinds. This was our Vietnam; our Ban the Bomb. It had a very powerful effect on me.2

Neoliberalism in practice is profoundly stupid. It cannot abide nuance or difference. In the neoliberal vision, society is supplanted by a brutally simplified field of self-interested competitors, all bent on maximizing their own returns. A liberal society is a technology based on the awareness and minimization of the possibility of individuals’ suffering, which is the basis of rights. Therefore, liberal societies manifest a regulatory government whose primary mission is to limit the harm that self-interested competitors and their market logic can do to real people who, unlike simple competitors, are defined by unquantifiable factors such as desires, friends, family, and the social context these provide. Neoliberalism turns the tables. Under neoliberalism, it is instead the market that regulates the newly limited realms within which government is allowed to function. Naturally, or rather unnaturally, the protective, conservationist functions of the state that formerly ensured the well-being of individuals, such as education, health care, or environmental protection, are whittled away. The market, taking all social authority unto itself, leaves open to the government only the peripheral functions separating people who are favored and those who are not— the policing, military, and penal functions. What is left of the government is all borders and punishment and the free labor that generates, with stakeholder profit on the back end. The individual with all its rights becomes an inadmissible category in public discourse,3 and the gambling competitor, the player, slave-like,4 who is without identity because the neoliberal subject is absolutely anyone whoever playing a zero-sum game, is the only assumed denizen of the razed public sphere. Here the state no longer curries the favor of the governed with the classical contract to protect its citizens in exchange for legitimizing its reign, and it instead cooperates to widen social divisions. And here is where neoliberalism is actually, lacking any better word, stupid. In bypassing appeal to any type of intelligence or sensible argument, its aim is to mechanically force individuals by circumstance to become competitors through lack, fear, and suspicion. It engineers the famine that makes markets real. In a positive feedback reaction loop, the further right vested forces push discourse and policy, the further right the ever more alienated and bereft populace tends to believe it must move to survive. Mere survival forces the transformation of individuals into competitors.

Taken in this context, Daniel Rachel’s book is so very important because it does not depict a youth cultural scene obsessed with aesthetics or fashion or music alone; it does not depict the actions of political idealists, ideologues, or candidates succeeding on their merit or purity alone; it does not reduce the period and its struggles to the circumstances’ applicability to the identity just one or another alienated and disenfranchised group affected by Thatcherite, corporatist, or right-wing policies alone. It depicts a moment in living memory when several groups of concerned human beings eschewed the reduction of their own politics to aesthetic competition amongst themselves, and instead worked together in the common cause of humanity to reject the right-wing attempt to dismantle culture. They did this with the gravitas and common cause of an anti-reductionist ethical social context behind them. They did this by clearly articulating their unifying principles at all of their events, by organizing politically, by fielding candidates, by demonstrating, and by organizing to protect one another when the very real physical threats from the right were imminent. The fascist, neoliberal right, after all, adheres to the letter of market stupidity, and admits no nuance. In such a reductionist view of society, wherein there is only one acceptable interpretation of reality, everything is flattened and made aesthetic, competitive, and material. To zealots of reductionist competition whose worldview is limited to the existence of ruthlessly self-interested actors alone, all perceived threats, whether conceptual, rhetorical, or physical, are categorically identical. There is no room for empathy or understanding when, like those on the right, you stand on sides. However you relate, haters are only gonna hate.

Although Walls Come Tumbling Down is, in part, about the fun of music and rock stars and youth joyfully coming together, at this frightening moment in U.S. history, saturated with police violence, an atmosphere of militarism that spawns a gun and policing culture that is out of control, and emboldened fascist elements, this book gives readers more than a playful romp through a bygone hipster scene of detached and politically demobilized cool. This is not a portrait of outsiders in competition for the crown of alterity. The thorough picture of the political climate it instead provides does even more than provide mere hope for our troubled times. It provides a blueprint on which, once again, a solidarity can be built to push back on the awful state of American politics and society today. It must be done, and, importantly, it can be done. After all, as Daniel Rachel has so rousingly and meticulously illustrated in Walls Come Tumbling Down, it has been done before.