Living an immaterially affluent life rarely comes without consequence. Luscious wealth creates dependency despite its iconoclastic prestige, and when matters must be taken into the perfectly manicured hands of the rich, there are no lengths by which they are bound to protect their power.
Yet Cory Finley, writer and director of the dark comedy Thoroughbreds, is unconcerned with allegorical falls from paradise. His film is neither a stark rejection of high society nor a satire thereof; this is a story of patricide and of even greater betrayals.
Lily, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, has lived a lavish, unperturbed life in the Connecticut suburbs, residing in a sprawling mansion that puts Casa Casuarina to shame. Her childhood friend, Amanda, played by Bates Motel star Olivia Cooke, visits every so often when her mother can afford Lily’s expensive company.
The film opens with Amanda driving a steel spike through a horse. But while homage to Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus, is delightful, the reference comes through as well in the reality that Amanda is a complete foil to Shaffer’s stable boy character: she is utterly psychopathic.
And despite her shameless admission of the fact, Amanda quickly becomes the mouthpiece for Lily’s escalating desire to kill her stepfather, Mark, played by Paul Sparks.
Mark is a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the ridiculously wealthy. From his skin-tight biking outfits and incessant rowing machine exercises to his weeklong juicing cleanses, Mark’s very existence provokes Lily’s ire.
But this anger has never been actualized into any meaningful form; her inutile angst is made all the more frustrating by Lily’s financial dependence on Mark and lack of confidence in getting away with murder by herself.
Amanda gauges all of this within the first 15 minutes of her return to Lily’s wing of the mansion and immediately goads Lily in her casually icy way to “just kill him,” finally giving voice to Lily’s sequestered desire and turning herself into the mouthpiece and mastermind of this patricide.
Never mind that Lily has no problem listening to a manipulative psychopath so long as her problem disappears.
Thoroughbreds’ storyline is the weakest link in a film otherwise embellished by its style. Finley did well in keeping the cast of characters down to a hand count. Any more would have been monotonous.
The two girls consult Tim, an aspiring drug dealer who claims to just want today’s kids to relish their first drug experience, played by the late Anton Yelchin, a former star of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie series. The interactions between these three characters are pure slapstick gold and make for the lighter shades of Finley’s dark humor.
Yelchin steals every scene he occupies, satirizing the hotheaded gangster who rips off other rich, Vineyard Vines-wearing hoodlums while still living at home with his dad.
Although initially blackmailed by the two girls into committing the murder, Tim proves himself to be a useless accomplice, and the act of murder falls squarely on Lily and Amanda’s shoulders.
If Thoroughbreds’ story feels reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, Strangers on a Train, it is not by coincidence.
Finley emulated a number of key historical films, infusing his dark comedy with just enough of each muse to bolster his visual storytelling and immaculate style without garishly mimicking these predecessors.
Working closely with cinematographer Lyle Vincent, Finley turns the mansion into a visual exploration of its characters; photographs become exact measures of this family’s wealth, from Mark’s safari trips to Lily’s equestrian prowess. Greco-Roman busts haunt Amanda’s single-take tour of the ground floor, while in the background a maid cries out to Lily that she has company, implying the sheer scale of both the mansion and this family’s wealth.
Herein lies the true success of Finley’s vision as he accurately depicts this mode of life with nothing but a camera lens and intermittent percussion.
The music for Thoroughbreds is similarly inspired, namely by Antonio Sánchez’s soundtrack to Birdman, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, continuing the trend of intense percussion to percolate tension through a film’s atmosphere.
While Thoroughbreds’ music does not add a meaningful dimension to its scenes, it accentuates the style just like the visuals themselves. It is refreshing to see the influences of recent films in today’s pictures.
This underscores the fault some viewers may find in Thoroughbreds: for all its style, there is very little depth to its message, characters or plot.
This is not a satirical commentary on the upper class as Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was, and it is certainly not a scathing condemnation of the lifestyle.
But sometimes it only takes a shallow pool for one to fall in love with their own reflection. While not necessarily kitsch, Thoroughbreds expertly skirts the threshold between meaningful and meaningless exposition by emphasizing its style and humor over the messages today’s status quo expects from such movies.
That there is no greater meaning — that life can so remorselessly continue in Thoroughbreds’ aftermath — begs the question of why audiences would expect anything less from these people at all.
In the end, the material life is proven immaterial with a kitchen knife, not a pulpit.