There’s one early scene in Cory Finley’s exemplary first feature, Thoroughbreds, that feels destined to be included in the canon of great high school movie moments: two seniors, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), are sitting in Lily’s ornate living room, watching an old movie. The frenetic flicker of the TV illuminates the space between them. When we see an actress on screen break into tears, Amanda scoffs: she’s not using the "technique"—or at least not using it effectively. And as if to prove her point to Lily, Amanda works herself into a genuine sobbing fit, complete with syncopated breaths and snotty sniffles. Then she deliberately turns to Lily and stops on a dime: see? She proceeds to teach her friend how to trick herself into crying, until they’re interrupted by Lily’s puzzled stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks).
Two girls learning how to master their most “feminine” emotions in order to get what they want from their parents—or boys—is evidence of a highly advanced, Gen-Z state of adolescence. Amanda, for her part, is particularly evolved: as she explains to Lily, she does not feel anything—not joy nor sadness, guilt nor remorse. She’s post-emotional. And yet, as the “technique” scene proves, she employs her skills as an expert mimic in decidedly humanist ways. To hear her tell it, Amanda’s absence of feelings don’t make her a bad person—she just has to try harder to be good.
Thoroughbreds, if I had to describe it so bluntly, is a Woody Allen morality play (think: Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point) set in the cold, rarefied air of Sofia Coppola’s quietly potent studies of white girl privilege, with a bit of stylized pulp thrown in. Amanda, we deduce from a prologue, mercifully and brutally kills her own horse, Honeymooner, when she learns that he’ll never gallop again. Lily, an old childhood friend of hers, who got kicked out of boarding school herself, is being paid to tutor her. A tentative friendship is born. Soon enough, Lily asks Amanda to help her murder her loathsome stepfather, Mark, thus setting the plot in motion.
Finley adapted the movie from his play of the same name, although it’s clear from the get-go that he had a vision for how to translate it to the screen. The film takes place in the uber-rich environs of suburban Connecticut, and Finley renders Lily’s massive estate lavish and airless, sanitized and hollow. A view of the lush backyard is interrupted only by the passerby of a groundskeeper, mowing the lawn; a bag of chips left out on the countertop is mechanically plucked up by a maid, who seems to materialize from nowhere and disappear just as quickly. The score, at times, feels like an atonal composition of those almost inaudible house sounds, creeks and knocks and inanimate grumblings. The violence, when it happens, mostly unfolds off-screen, as if not to debase the viewer with such vulgarities.
I think Finley would like his movie to be a pointed satire of the very-wealthy, and he even allows himself a moment of theatrical speechifying during the film’s dénouement. Taylor-Johnson does a fantastic job of making us empathize with Lily, but at the end of the day her plan is that of a self-centered brat who’s used to getting everything she wants; Paul Sparks’s Mark can be cruel, yet he is by no means evil. Everything, and everyone, is disposable to her—including Tim (Anton Yelchin), a twentysomething drug dealer with grandiose visions of his future success, who the girls embroil in their murderous scheme; and, eventually, Amanda. (Yelchin, who tragically passed in 2016, revealed the sheer luminosity of his talent as Tim, giving an otherwise icy movie a much-needed infusion of warmth.)
All of this is well and good, but what’s of greater interest is Amanda, who, under Cooke's control, exhibits more humanity than her more human friend. Some have compared Thoroughbreds to Heathers, the cult ‘80s movie about a high school serial killer that has experienced something of a revival as of late, what with its off-Broadway musical and television adaption (the release of which has been delayed, following the Parkland shooting). But where that movie made an enemy of its sociopath (indelibly portrayed by Christian Slater), Thoroughbreds makes Amanda its reluctant hero—or, if not a hero, someone sincerely worthy of our sympathy. In this way, Thoroughbreds, from a moral perspective, might be closer to the noble serial killings of Showtime’s Dexter or the misunderstood antisocial tendencies in Netflix’s punk-picaresque series, The End of the F***ing World.
Closer, but not identical. Because Amanda is a sociopath, to be sure, but she’s a selfless sociopath. Faced with her condition, she chooses not to impose her self on the world through violence, like many a-white male shooter has, but rather to disappear. Nowhere in Thoroughbreds is the male ego that’s so complicit in the ruthless killings of American Psycho and Heathers, or even Dexter and The End of the F***ing World, the protagonists of which may not have any feelings, and may even mean well, but whose desire to kill, at least initially, stems from a desire to feel something, no matter the human cost. Despite an apparent deficiency of the self—what is the self without feelings?—these men are still undeniably selfish. What sets Amanda apart is her desire to be good, or do right by her friend—a virtuous selflessness predicated on the very disposal of the self.