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PFF 26: Thoroughbreds


“That doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person, it just means I have to work a little harder to be good.”

Foremost: If you are the type of person who is inclined to see “Thoroughbreds,” because of the trailer, or the Sundance buzz, or tidbits you’ve picked up on the indie grapevine, then you should go ahead and see “Thoroughbreds.” It is not a work which will be more effectively unpacked with cliff notes, and I’d opine that fresh eyes are the best for this one.  As a film it accomplishes everything it sets out to do with pinache, and is a breath of grim fresh air. Vegas does not like the odds of this film sweeping the Oscars, but I’d optimistically place it as an under-card Criterion release in a few years (think along the “Clouds of Sils Maria” tier: not a classic, not a cult favorite, but an under-celebrated genre-challenging gem).

Or place it this way: word on the street is comparing it to a Hitchcock-directed “Heathers,” but I’d say it’d be more accurately compared to a Paul Thomas Anderson-Directed “Shallow Grave.” (an under-celebrated macabre comedy if there ever was one).

So if that sounds like something you’d be interested in, go on and see it. I’ll leave this here for you when you get back (rumor is that Focus is planning a Spring 2018 release).

A special note for my Philadelphia Film Festival  #PFF Friends, the film is running one more time on Sunday,  Oct. 29th, 440pm. Last chance to catch it before the freeze and thaw.

Okay, so now you’re here and well-positioned for this. I’ll presume you took my advice, because people certainly do.

And we can agree: “Thoroughbreds” is a nuanced, subversive, and highly polished story which starts down a familiar trajectory only to rapidly careen off into the unexpected. You’ve gotta dig it, if you’re into that kind of thing. Essentially it is the story of two disaffected teenage girls from upper class families whose incapacity to grasp the world around them manifest in a series of slowly revealed manic personas. The two spend some time circling each other warily before hatching a plot, and the rest you either know or don’t need me to tell you anyways. “Thoroughbreds” is one of those rare movies where what happens and how it happens are both interesting schemes.  

The first thing about “Thoroughbreds” that you surely noticed was the tone: it takes a minimal number of shots and a little bit of sparse musical-effect to set an eerie, dangerous tone. Everything from the automaton-like housekeeping staff to the uncanny valley of knick-knacks to the Shining-esque perpetual hallways communicates that where we are is decadent in a Bronte or Shelley sense. Lily’s perplexing manse amounts for nearly the majority of the screen time, without ever feeling comfortable or familiar. Those scenes not in the manse are equally crafted for effect, from the haunted sterility of the day spa to Amanda’s trophy-filled bedroom, and really among the most notable aspects of this work is that the cinema-polish never takes a scene off.

Part of that, of course, is due to the ways in which Amanda (Olivia Cooke of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy of nothing I’ve seen) inhabit their surroundings like ponderous and surprisingly agile jungle snakes. The movie is entirely about the pair, and the watching-of-the-movie is entirely about decoding their maneuvers as they lounge, coil, and strike.  To this end we see Lily and Amanda at aggressive, vulnerable, wounded, and manic moments, and the thrill of the movie is placing these states in the larger jigsaw of each character.

The pair are presented as mired in jaded disaffection, but only until they leaps into action, and this just reinforces uncertainty before you’re even certain who is who and why they’re there.  Amanda practicing her smiles in the mirror and Lily’s dead-eyed make-up scenes telegraph nothing so much as Danger, and that makes their languid scenes before the TV or uncomfortable outdoor chess set tense beyond the expected. la femelle est la plus de l’espèce.

The who-ness of this movie, of course, is the aspect which makes “Thoroughbreds” not just masterfully crafted but impressively effective. As quickly as the film presents us with “good girl” Lily and “disturbing” Amanda, we begin to see vectors shift. The slow reveal of context shifts the lens used to decipher the girls, and ultimately the interactions of the two borderline personality characters reveals a pre-film narrative for each of the characters that is as compelling as the ongoing events of the film.  

Two other characters round out the cast, in minor yet effective roles: Paul Sparks of “Boardwalk Empire” and “House of Cards” fame, who is coyingly smarmy and the same character he always plays (begging to be stabbed, that is), and Antony Yelich, who somehow makes his drug-dealing pedophile twerp into one of the most hapless, pitiful, and almost sympathetic characters. Of the casting I’ll ultimately say this: the movie lacks star power, but everybody in it can Act, and they absolutely maximize their roles.

As a directorial debut, “Thoroughbreds” is a blast out of nowhere. Whoever Cory Finley is, and he doesn’t have a wiki so he could be anyone, mark him on the to-see list whatever he calls his next project. Finley wrote and directed the film, which ultimately gives it that seamless feel between plot and feel. He also infused the work with a significant vein of clever comedy, which is balanced to the gram in order to prevent the movie from becoming dismal and most notably humanize the characters who might otherwise be defined solely by their darker sides.

For all that it does spectacularly, “Thoroughbreds” isn’t a flawless film. Though the decision to leave the film uncluttered certainly streamlines the narrative and allows for consistent velocity, the nearly absolute vacuum of the film challenges the ability to context the greater theme or to even ground the characters in an allegorical sense. When the movie gets round to its impactful denouement, there is a larger universal commentary that you can catch when you’re thrown, but it’s not one that has been intuitively laid out (for example, it is never entirely clear if the near complete absence of either characters’ mother from the film is simply a part of the work’s passionate focus or if it is an element of the narrative). The climax, too, will demand some small suspension of disbelief.

And ultimately it could be possible to dislike the film because it has no likable characters to like in it. But then, I never said it was that kind of movie.

I said it was like a lot of other movies, but those were the easy ones. Here’s the accurate one: “Thoroughbreds” is a condensed bougie schoolgirl “No Country For Old Men.” Bear with me. McCarthy’s work is an action thriller, but the virtue of that work was also its characters, individuals with strange internal tool-kits and passionate drives, and of whom we learn more about both ongoing and historically through their interactions with each other. As deciphering the characters of “No Country” was half the value of that work, it’s nearly the entire point of “Thoroughbreds.” Or put it this way, the joy of each of these works is watching as the crazed elements of seemingly placid characters slowly leaks out and manifests before us.

(what can I say, I’ve got a degree in comparing things and I’m not going to get to show it off just by making the easy ones).

So if you haven’t, if you’ve ignored my advice, you could and should when you get the chance check out “Thoroughbreds.” As a safari of the unbalanced mind in strange and dangerous places, the film is an insightful and artful presentation of character subversion that impresses and surprises. Atmospherically gorgeous, tonally sophisticated, and impressively unexpected, “Thoroughbreds” is a modern and mobile dark portrait that is a valuable contemporary addition.

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