Assuming you’re familiar with Rick and Morty, it isn’t often you watch a wide release film that can provide you a philosophical link between it and these few lines from an existentially exhausted and deranged Mr. Meeseeks in the Season 1 episode “Meeseeks and Destroy.” Specifically, near the end of the episode, the lead Meeseeks proclaims: “Meeseeks are not born into this world fumbling for meaning, Jerry! We are created to serve a singular purpose for which we will go to any lengths to fulfill! Existence is pain to a Meeseeks, Jerry. And we will do anything to alleviate that pain.” Such is not only the elongated mantra of insufferable Rick and Morty fans – namely that existence is suffering – but also of equally intolerable nihilists everywhere.
Thoroughbreds aren’t just a specific breed of horse, bringing with them connotations of individuality by way of exclusivity, they are animals bred for a singular purpose who fortunately – as far as we can tell, at least – lack the self-awareness to recognize the cruel hollowness of their existence. Whether it’s for racing or other competitive equestrian means, as soon as the horse is no longer fit to compete for whatever reason, they are enough of a financial burden to those breeding them as well as those investing in their potential glory that their existence is rendered meaningless; an annoying strain ready to be put out of its misery. Thank goodness they cannot be afforded the same crushing realization as Rick’s butter robot.
This is just one of many thematic similarities one could justify between the title of writer-director Cory Finley’s directorial debut and his two sociopathic protagonists (connections with privilege/luxury, figures bound by particular expectations, etc.). On a handful of occasions, Olivia Cooke’s emotionally depleted Amanda ponders whether her own life has meaning, whereas the secretly hot-blooded Lily, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, frequently confronts situations that reveal an excruciating lack of control over her own life (‘Good Breeding Gone Bad,’ the film’s tagline poetically notes). The film itself isn’t nihilistic in its intent, though it does use this outlook to differently define its protagonists as two various reactions to internally adopting this philosophy as the way of the world. Then again, you don’t need nihilistic legitimizing to make a movie this quietly sinister.
Finley’s steady, assured debut rests its laurels on mood, whether it be expressed in the performances or other markers of perceived cinematic language. It’s tense, but doesn’t attempt to be suspenseful, per se, instead falling back on palpable emotional buildup that can’t help but burst when inevitably reaching its breaking point. Ominous drums crash and bang along with specific emotional beats to signify escalating psychopathy and horror, as if Yorgos Lanthimos was a key consultant in achieving such a dark, bleak tone, if albeit through the vessel of a heavily on-the-nose aesthetic. Yet like The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s particular propensity to sonically prop up Stanley Kubrick’s own self-satisfying grandeur as cinematic genius, Thoroughbreds also manages to make it work without undermining its own intentions.
It’s a film that admirably cares not if you derive pleasure from it the way you would a more traditional thriller or suspense film, basking in a twisty web of a narrative that keeps you guessing at every turn – the story does offer some neat little turns, but isn’t thoroughly unpredictable. Rather, it leans on its characters and various performances to deliver engagement as well as a satisfactory affirmation of atmospheric direction. Watching Cooke and Taylor-Joy on screen together isn’t fun solely because they deliver highly composed turns that subtly ebb and flow with the emotional direction of the plot, or because they demonstrate a well-developed chemistry, but also because their characters represent two sides of the same id that are more relatable than we’d like to admit to ourselves sometimes. Inherent economic and racial privilege notwithstanding, they are, or rather signify the conflict behind the darkest inhibitions in all of us.
Though perhaps their characters’ being privileged teenagers makes them inevitably more interesting in the context of the story, and even with other dark comedies about high school teens. Ever since its premiere at Sundance last year, the film has met frequent comparisons to Michael Lehmann’s Heathers for its story about murderous high schoolers, though Finley’s greater sympathy for his well-off protagonists than Lehmann or screenwriter Daniel Waters had makes this comparison a little misleading. Even as products of privilege, Lily and Amanda do not represent the oft-repeated stereotypes and antagonistic, though not entirely unfounded flaws often prescribed to characters in other high school movies who come from similarly advantageous social positions. Not only are they both a severe departure from these traits, their personalities expose their particular upscale Connecticut life for all of its maddening isolation and captivity.
Frequently in the opening half or so, cinematographer Lyle Vincent’s camera tracks back and forth through Lily’s house, often following behind either of the two leads as they go from room to room, but then sometimes abandons them to find another space a character is occupying. You get the sense that he and Finley are carving out a world where these characters mostly reside, but as the film goes on and we’re more familiarized with the space, we see less movement through the space, and it feels less like an expansive universe with all of the amenities one could ask for and more like a glorified cage – or, more appropriately for this movie considering the title, a stable. The interplay of visual style and sound/music cues can go a long way into aiding or enhancing a performance, and Finley captures a deft touch in not only using these things to support our empathy towards these characters with their own trauma and personal baggage, but also standing back and letting Cooke and Taylor-Joy do their own leg work in that regard, recognizing that we might go equally insane given similar circumstances and confines.
But then, take all of this into account that the whole premise behind Thoroughbreds is to sardonically lampoon any sort of connection between privilege/wealth and empathy, and yet it never falls apart. Yes, it also helps that it’s often bitingly funny, but the sledgehammer punchlines are never the star of the show, or what makes the film an intriguing viewing experience. Finley’s film rides high enough on strong character work to look past any superficial flaws throughout its economical hour and a half run, and it’s fair to say it represents a strong calling card for whatever projects the writer-director has in mind for the future. Whatever he considers his singular purpose, it seems he’s fulfilling it pretty well so far.