We are fascinated by murder. We parse through the grisly details, not with glee, but with a relentless, morbid curiosity. Most of all, we are captivated by the murderer, the unnatural being who has deviated outside moral boundaries. Perhaps it is the rebellious nature of murder and the assertion of independence from seemingly binding rules that is so fascinating.
If so, there are no characters more appropriate than the teenage girls at the center of Thoroughbreds. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) are entirely products of their upper-class breeding. They are perfectly groomed, perfectly behaved. They are calm, cool, and confident. They are beautiful, shiny exteriors; cracked into a thousand pieces underneath. Amanda confesses to feeling nothing. Lily despises her step-father. Together, they plan a murder. It is a simple enough premise, made interesting because of the characters. These are two girls that are fundamentally broken, but well-trained enough to hide it. This leaves the audience constantly guessing at their motivations and questioning any display of emotion. The film takes advantage of the eagerness to psychoanalyze and constantly toys with curiosity, offering one motive after another. It is a conceit that is at once intriguing and completely maddening because it allows the movie to get away without making its meaning clear. Instead, the film pursues multiple tracks, switching personalities as easily as the sociopaths it concerns. Thoroughbreds wants to be a character study, a critique of the rich, and a crime movie at the same time. It never succeeds entirely in any of these attempts, but the resulting combination is perhaps unsettling enough to leave a lasting impression.
An uneasiness permeates the film even as the camera cruises through opulent mansions and well-tended lawns. The over-the-top richness of the setting lends to the discomfiting feeling. Watching Lily and Amanda treat these luxuries for granted separates them and the situation even further from reality. It certainly leads to some good laughs, especially with the constantly present and entirely ambivalent staff at the mansion. However, in doing so, the film also becomes less consequential and more fantastical. The bizarre elements become more problematic when the character of Tim (Anton Yelchin) enters the movie. In contrast to the two girls, Tim is a drug dealer, a man desperate for money thrust into a world beyond his wildest dreams. He is proof that the there is another reality besides the insular world of the ridiculously rich. But the film cannot deign to fully explore what Tim represents. Instead, he is another prop for the girls to play with and discard. Perhaps, this too, is a choice to display the carelessness and abuse of the rich. It is just not a very complex or interesting one. The film wants to confront us with the damages, to question the systematic pursuit of money. However, it is so deeply embedded in the mindsets of those born to privilege that it only challenges these topics superficially.
More intriguing, is the relationship between Lily and Amanda which succeeds because it does not attempt to tackle the thorny issue of class. Instead, it relies entirely on the deadpan charisma of Cooke and the enigmatic talents of Taylor-Joy. They have a natural rapport as they warily dance around each other. Cooke expands upon what could be a one-note role in the wrong hands. Taylor-Joy does equally good work by letting Lily’s moments of emotion surface through layers of repression. It is these two performances that give the film its twisted charm. Thoroughbreds’ greatest flaw is also its greatest strength. By refusing to elaborate on the details, it allows the audience to construct its own murder narrative. But it also doesn’t say much.