Cinema Dispatch: Thoroughbreds

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Thoroughbreds and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features

Directed by Cory Finley

Well they haven’t announced a sequel to Ingrid Goes West yet which is PROBABLY a good thing all things considered, but it also means that I’ll have to start looking to the imitators if I want to re-experience that magic that made that film so special.  Not EXACTLY the case with this film as it was actually made BEFORE Ingrid Goes west (back in 2016), but considering both films are about emotionally unstable young women (this time there’s TWO of them!) and the ways that society can exacerbate their worst tendencies, it seems like a good place to start if I want to find another great movie that’s right up my alley.  Does this manage to succeed not just in terms of being LIKE a movie I really loved but as its own unique story?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with Amanda (Olivia Cooke) who feels nothing being tutored by Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) who feels everything, and the two of them are sort of rekindling their friendship after certain life events (the death of Lily’s father as well as some really disturbing activities Amanda got up to) had driven them apart.  Now normally this would be a cause for celebration as two friends getting back together is usually a recipe for good times and wholesome nostalgia, but when it becomes clear that Lily REALLY hates her new step-father (Paul Sparks), Amanda floats the idea of just murdering the dude… because that’s what people who don’t feel anything naturally jump to… I guess?  Lily is skeptical at first, but it doesn’t take long for her to warm up to the idea which they start hastily putting together in between watching old movies on TV and sitting around in Lily’s fancy house.  Clearly they aren’t criminal masterminds, but it does seem that they know enough to try and get someone who’s ACTUALLY a criminal (not necessarily a mastermind) to try and help them with this plan, so the duo enlists Tim (Anton Yelchin) who Lily saw selling drugs at a party once, and things start to spiral out of control from there.  Will Lily and Amanda come up with the PERFECT plan to kill the douchebag step dad without getting caught themselves?  What can Tim really bring to the table now that he’s sucked into these girls’ outlandish scheme, and how far will he go to find a way out of it?  Is it just me, or do these girls watch just as much TV as I do?

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“So you want to start picking locations to dump the body?”     “Shh.  After this episode.”

I don’t think this is a bad movie, but the biggest problem with it is that it lacks… flavor.  It doesn’t necessarily lack IMPACT or INTENSITY, but color, life, style, PIZAZZ?  There’s not a lot to be found here as the movie takes itself VERY seriously while also downplaying its characters, cinematography, and the general mise-en-scène.  That’s kind of the point I guess considering just how detached from reality our two main characters are, but in doing such a good job of making their lives seem empty and meaningless… well it kind of makes a movie that FEELS empty and meaningless as well.  Compare this to Ingrid Goes West which is a film that at least had interesting characters for our exceedingly damaged main character to interact with as well as a world full of possible traps and pitfalls that she would end up falling into.  Here though, it’s almost like a bottle film as both of our characters are rarely seen outside of either’s house which allows their toxic relationship to fester and metastases to the point that we’re ultimately building towards, but… well, it’s not the most interesting thing to watch considering how intentionally lifeless the two of them are playing their roles.  It’s not like the movie is really FAILING at what it wants to be, and I will give it plenty of praise for what it gets right and how compelling the narrative gets at points, but what we’re ultimately left to chew on is rather rubbery and without much taste instead of being a savory treat for the mind and the senses.

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“What the heck is this?  It’s pork roast and my broken dreams.”     “In that case, it’s delicious.  Thank you, honey.”

The aspect about this movie that I’m struggling with the most is the character of Amanda played by Olivia Cooke, so let’s just jump right into that!  I’m having trouble navigating exactly what I should FEEL about this character and her actions, especially as we get closer and closer to the climax, and while I GUESS this is a good thing in that it doesn’t pigeon hole her into a single identity, it makes it hard to really care either way what happens at the end.  Okay, that’s a bit unfair as the ending where we see what happens to her is the closest thing this movie gets to heartbreaking (and is a pretty good way to wrap up a story where you have such mixed feelings on the character), but I can’t say I ever enjoyed her character until that point; either in a way that would make her a “hero” worth rooting for or a “villain” where you eagerly anticipate whatever hateful action she will take next.  I guess if I were to boil down my disappointed feelings about this character throughout, it’s that I never trusted a word she said; not so much due to her being intentionally deceitful or even anything to do with her being unable to feel emotions, rather that she has delusions of self-grandeur that don’t actually exist and her “logical reasoning” is anything but.  Considering how little I know about psychopathy (which she claims to have) and the difference between malicious fictions spread by society versus what are genuine conditions that people struggle with, it’s almost impossible for me to separate what we’re supposed to see as a sympathetic character who is saddled with a condition she can’t control and a person who’s just so arrogant and self-centered that they couch their anti-social behavior as a condition rather than a series of personal choices, and I guess that’s where a lot of my issues with this character comes from.  I don’t know if we’re supposed to call bullshit on everything she’s saying (making this almost a dark comedy) or if we’re supposed to be terrified of what a person without proper help and support is capable of; both options by the way can also go down some dark roads and perpetuate negative stereotypes.  She could be lying about being psychotic which could be a source of humor (you really don’t know what you’re talking about despite using big words and talking in a monotone) or perpetuate the idea that mental disorders aren’t real.  If she ISN’T lying and we’re supposed to take her every action at face value, then it’s either a terrifying portrayal of what can happen to someone who isn’t getting the help they need or it could perpetuate negative ideas that people with this condition are NATURALLY good at being monstrous.  As she says in the movie, “that doesn’t make me a bad person; it just means I have to work a little harder to be good”; a line that really frustrates me because it can be read SO many different ways (from understanding how hard it is to for some people to fit in with what society expects of them, all the way to RUN BEFORE THEY MURDER US ALL!!) and the movie never really settles on what we should think of her until the very end of the movie.  The ending is PRETTY definitive in its messaging which is why I think it works so well, but the journey to that point is just kind of all over the map and spends too long fumbling to find its bearings.

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“King me.”     “That’s not how that game works.”     “Why do you assume I’m playing chess?”     “Oh… I see what you did there!”

Compared to Amanda though who’s a bit all over the place, the film takes an impressively nuanced character arc for Lily played by Anya Taylor-Joy who is just as much of a monster (if not more so) as her friend and it ends up being a rather solid, if narrowly focused, examination of privilege.  Lily is in fact privileged due to the fact that she lives a life of wealthy comforts which is more than most people could ever hope for, yet this life has legitimately become a prison for her.  This nice house, these nice things, and her first rate education that have all been bestowed upon her come with a hefty price because her stepfather, who’s the one with all the money, experts a huge amount of power of her and her mother.  He doesn’t lay a hand on them at least as far as we see (I wish the movie wasn’t so coy about whether or not that’s the case), but he doesn’t need to.  Their livelihoods depend on whether or not they remain in his good graces, and even if Lily’s mother is as happy as she says she is (which very well could be the case as we’re dealing with a pretty unreliable narrator), that’s a power imbalance that’s hard to ignore and easily abused.  It at least gives Lily’s actions throughout the movie (which become increasingly desperate and cold hearted) a sense of motivation which is more than I can really say for Amanda, but then maybe that’s the point.  Despite Lily’s outward appearance as the “normal” one who people tend to like, the movie never lets you forget how much everything about her life constantly infuriates her and how far she’ll eventually push herself to get what she wants; whether or not she genuinely needs an escape or is just raging at the world until she gets what she feels she’s entitled to.

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“No, DAD!  YOU take out the trash!”

The framing of the movie (both in how we view Amanda as well as Lily) is just one aspect of the film, and I’ll fully admit that this could easily hit a lot of people in a lot of different ways; some more strongly than me in either good or bad directions.  The story itself when stripped of the specifics of these two characters is pretty definitively a dark comedy in the vein of Pain and Gain (foolish wannabe criminals trying to pull off a job) and while it has some REALLY strong points throughout, it never really gathers enough steam to keep us engaged in what’s going on.  The ball never really gets rolling as scenes of them plotting are followed up by scenes of them… not plotting, and it’s pacing is so off that I didn’t even realize we were at the end of the movie until the film itself flat out told me it was.  Now that’s not to say that the non-plotting scenes aren’t interesting in their own right as both Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are great in the parts, but I don’t think the movie really fits together all that well the way it’s edited.  The two performances that kind of ground this movie’s narrative and keeps things flowing are Paul Sparks as the emotionally callous stepfather and Anton Yelchin as the wannabe criminal mastermind; and you can feel the sense of forward momentum ease back every time they leave the screen.  They’re two of the only characters that Lily and Amanda interact with other than themselves, and they both lend a bit more motivation and urgency to the situation whenever they show up.  Paul Sparks is REALLY great in here as possibly the most morally complex character in the movie as he is a genuine bastard who treats people around him rather poorly, but he ends up speaking a certain amount of truth about how his stepdaughter views the world and it’s hard to argue with that considering how things inevitably end up.  Anton Yelchin on the other hand is really charismatic in that gross scumbag kind of way where he knows how to turn a phrase and smooth talk, but isn’t good enough at it to keep himself out of trouble, so whenever he’s with the girls things escalate REALLY quickly and it ratchets up the tension more than anything else here.

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“PLOT TWIST!  Who’s the unpredictable one NOW!?  MWA HA HA HA HAAA!!”

If there were fewer scenes of these two simply isolated from everyone else and more chances for these two to interact with the outside world, I might have liked this movie a bit more.  Ingrid Goes West does a great job of that as she’s constantly being faced with the challenges that just BEING in the outside world has for people with her particular issues, and it’s both humorous and nerve wracking to see her alternately fail spectacularly and succeed with utter grace.  The isolation is certainly part of the point if the title didn’t make that clear enough, and it works in places here and there, but there’s just too much of nothing much going on to have held my interest all the way through.  I don’t REALLY recommend seeing it in theaters as the experience can be a bit exhausting, but it’ll be worth checking out once it gets a home release.  In the meantime, did you see Ingrid Goes West yet?  GO SEE INGRID GOES WEST ALREADY!!

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