With a similar precision to the sharp blade seen in the film’s opening moments (helping create one of the most arresting depictions of equine violence since The Godfather), Thoroughbreds immediately announces its arrival into the annals of teen angst dramas, playing out as a brooding bildungsroman of female friendship and murderous pacts that translates as Heathers or Heavenly Creatures if either had been directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
After the said euthanising of her crippled horse, former equestrian prodigy turned nihilistic misfit Amanda (Olivia Cooke) tries to reconnect with former childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) at her gilded Connecticut home under the pretence of casual tutoring sessions. An initial frostiness between the pair, caused by Amanda’s emotionally compromised state rubbing up against Lily’s angst over her academic future, coagulates into a shared lament for their thwarted ambitions. When Lily’s uptight and oppressive step-father threatens to ship her off to boarding school, the two teenagers and their pitiful accomplice Tim (Anton Yelchin) will foment their turmoil into homicidal urges.
Thoroughbreds is the calling card for first-time writer/director Cory Finley whose previous background was in theatre and playwriting. Finley assumed that his original screenplay was destined for the stage but after being shopped around Tinseltown, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning writers of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants offered to produce Finley’s script as a film, with the final product eventually premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. The protracted general release of Thoroughbreds into UK cinemas in April 2018 adds an unavoidable layer of macabre discomfort, given the film’s presence of Anton Yelchin, tragically killed nearly two years ago and just fourteen days after production had ceased on Thoroughbreds. The film is dedicated in his memory and while his role is truncated, Yelchin’s endearingly manic and twitchy performance as the ambitious would-be nouveau-riche Tim (“There are more billionaires under the age of 30 at this moment than in all of history”) makes the consideration of his loss to cinema all the more heartbreaking.
However, Thoroughbreds offers more pleasures to audiences than the opportunity to voyeuristically rubberneck at the on-screen spectre of Yelchin. The film’s tagline of “Good breeding gone bad” establishes a useful through-line for interpreting the protagonists and their motivations. The rarefied and privileged existences of Lily and Amanda has reinforced the rhetoric of “having it all” and suggested a predestined level of success – Amanda sardonically remarks to Lily at the film’s outset that, rather than pursuing college, she is going to “Steve Jobs her way through life”. The rest of the film works to expose the shortcomings of such a mantra and its damaging effect on their psyches ranging from Lily’s stepfather’s personal fitness obsession (conveying a more responsible method of achieving self-fulfilment) that is eventually transmuted into Lily’s desire to violently retaliate, to the juxtaposition of Lily and Amanda with the aspirational yet deeply flawed Tim.
The recurring motif of Amanda’s crying “technique”, borrowed from watching actresses in classical Hollywood films succinctly encapsulates the gathering anxieties of the two protagonists. When setting themselves against a backdrop of their peers who can invest their lives with meaning and purpose, Lily and Amanda are made to confront their own failed potential and ultimately realise, as Amanda does, that they are merely skilled imitators. The film ends with Amanda detailing a Swiftian dream in which humans have let their community fall into disarray through vanity, only for horses to take over. An absurdist fantasy perhaps, yet this might also be Finley’s moral judgement over the inability of these so-called thoroughbreds to effectively empathise with others.