Disclaimer: Maybe this is bullshit. Or maybe not. Thoroughbreds has sufficiently good reviews across the board. I’m still choosing to look at it given its limited mass appeal.
Thoroughbreds is a highly unusual film in the drama and mystery category. It’s theatrical poster prominently displays some eyebrow-raising review snippets. Indiewire’s David Ehrlich called it “American Psycho meets Heathers,” and the general slogan for the film across the media is “good breeding gone bad.”
These are apt descriptions for a movie where a highschooler, Lily, wishes to murder her stepdad with the help of her emotionally barren friend, Amanda. Amanda, played by the indelible Olivia Cooke, is in hot waters from the onset. Having euthanized her crippled horse with some over-the-top methods, she’s facing animal cruelty charges and a side of requisite therapy to go with it. She goes to Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) for tutoring help, a task Lily reluctantly accepts after being paid by Amanda’s mom, thus allowing old friends to reconnect over new concerns.
As this uneasy relationship progresses, Amanda’s ruthless pragmatism collides with Lily’s emotional conventionalism. That is until Amanda notices her friend’s disdain for her stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). The teenage conundrum casually mentions killing Paul as a solution to Lily’s headache, a solution rejected without pause at first. But as time passes and Lily notices Paul’s hostile and disagreeable behavior aimed at her mother and her, she changes her mind.
Coming of Age
While Thoroughbreds can fuel commentary about social class and its pitfalls, the crux of this post is a phrase from Tom Santilli’s review of the movie, where he called Thoroughbreds “a coming-of-age story that’s a different breed than we’re used to.” And it sure is. A darker, twisted breed. A mutilation if you will.
The phrase signifies a teenager or adolescent growing into adulthood, facing challenges and rites of passage to enter that new stage along the way. This process of growing up is littered with decisions and actions that signify maturity, a deviation from the norm of previous years. Something as simple as driving a car on your own could be you “coming-of-age.” Having sex for the first time. Getting your first job. Compounded together, these actions form a mindset leading to maturity and growth.
Murdering your stepfather is surely not on that list of actions, but the underlying intentions and motivations could very well be.
If we were in the stone age, most of our actions, those defined as coming-of-age, would center on survival. Killing a deer to provide food for the family. Building a shelter to shield us from the forces of nature. Procreating to further the bloodline.
Misguided or not, Thoroughbreds propels a narrative of survival for Lily through her muddled emotional vulnerability. There’s no question that Mark is a prick. As Lily calls for her mother at home, he yells back demanding the teenager to stop screaming inside the house (she wasn’t). He also uses the rowing machine at ungodly hours of the day. Annoying.
But push comes to shove later when Lily needs her mother’s signature for a school reapplication, all because she decided to plagiarize some assignments. While her mother tiptoes around the conversation, Mark comes out with the hammer. Lily won’t be going to the school of her choice. Instead, she’ll be dumped at a place for students with behavioral issues. The down payment has been made, end of story. Mark knows someone at the school anyway.
This conversation and Mark’s lack of empathy serves as the perfect catalyst for germinating Lily’s homicidal tendencies. At first sight, it could be easy to pass her off as a disgruntled and whiny child who believes she has impunity for her misdeeds, the plagiarism in this case. But by honing in on her perspective from the beginning, even mentioning her father’s passing, we strangely find her desires to be less outlandish as time goes by.
A tipping point comes later when Lily tinkers around with Mark’s bicycle. Whether she hoped he would get injured or killed outright was difficult to assess at that point. A subsequent scene has Mark’s nose and left elbow plastered with tape, and he looks exponentially more disgruntled. Lily’s mom follows him, trying to help out with the bandages but Mark chides her ferociously.
“Are you going to make me repeat myself?”
“Are you going to make me repeat myself?”
“I’m fucking fine.”
It plays out horribly on screen and Lily is within earshot of the lopsided exchange. Her reaction is enough for us to realize that this pattern of behavior is usual for Mark and that her deceased father never treated her mother this way.
If we look at the events from a survivor’s standpoint, eliminating Mark from the equation becomes beneficial to both Lily and her mother. Lily’s educational direction is dictated by Mark. He makes a point of noting that she only got into another school because he wrote them a check. Later on, as Lily’s demeanor towards Mark becomes more rebellious, by smoking a cigarette at home, for instance, he declares that he’s cutting her off after the first year of school.
But not before pointing the obvious. She’s self-centered and needs a dose of tough love out in the real world. Some of the criticisms were mentioned by Amanda. Without any emotional intelligence, she
We can go back and forth about who’s right and wrong about Lily’s predicament. She got into a mess by cheating for school and through her general disregard for Mark. Mark, like Amanda says, is a cock. Murder is a preposterous remedy under almost any situation, but given the circumstances, killing Mark gives Lily her educational freedom. His passing will bring a sizeable inheritance to her and her mother, leaving them both to operate with fewer restraints. Her mother might even be out of a somewhat abusive relationship. Survival. For both of them.
If she doesn’t kill Mark, Lily could slug it out at that less-than-stellar school. She could rough it out with multiple jobs to pay her way through semesters and life in general. But given her “princess” status quo and way of life, murder makes sense. Murder could prevent a labored existence. It makes sense for her desired results. It makes sense for her mother, even if she doesn’t wish for it herself. It also makes sense when your closest friend is a high-functioning robot capable of removing emotion from any scenario and viewing everything through reason. As Amanda says:
Human life isn’t some sacred thing … If that dude causes more bad than good, then he’s like a, you know, a piece of malfunctioning machinery.
As Lily looks at her life and what could materialize in the future, Mark’s machinery seems only destructive. It’s just a matter of time before he blows up her factory. To make sure she survives, she needs to discard the defective machine.
Survival is an evolutionary mechanism. Making sure you get through by a day, month, or year – even if your stepfather is in the way – becomes second nature.
Maturity and Sacrifice
Maturity (noun) – the quality of thinking and behaving in a sensible, adult manner.
Thoroughbreds‘ biggest success is in creating two alternate paths for Lily and Amanda. Lily begins as the naive sweetheart before getting soiled in a single stray thought from her friend. Amanda, on the other hand, starts off as a cold, calculating monster, someone who killed her horse cruelly even if she was simply putting down a dying animal. But her unwavering pragmatism and clarity morph into virtuous humanity as time passes, especially in contrast to Lily’s downward emotional spiral.
Amanda is a constant while Lily is the variable. Amanda remains practical while Lily descents into depths she’s not familiar with at all. The goal posts don’t change for Amanda, but they do for Lily, and this makes Amanda seem angelic with her decision in the final act.
Maturity is subjective since being an “adult” means different things to different people. Crying can be seen as being immature to some, but to others, it’s healthy and a sign of boldness. It’s all open to interpretation. If we were to introduce an objective measure for maturity, to me, it would be sacrifice.
We make sacrifices at all ages and life stages, but as we get older, the stakes get higher. We become acutely aware as we age that doing one thing means giving up another. When Anton Yelchin’s Tim fails to kill Mark and complete his duties as a hired gun, Lily decides to take on the responsibility herself.
But initially, Tim, with his colored criminal past involving drug charges and statutory rape, was meant to be the fall guy. Under the new rules, there is no way out.
That’s until Lily decides to pin the murder on Amanda. Facing a trial for animal cruelty, if she’s at the scene of a bloody crime, the conviction would be an easy sell. While the two friends watch TV one night at Lily’s place with Mark upstairs on his rowing machine, Lily drugs Amanda’s drink. She asks Amanda a decisive question. If you can’t feel anything is there a point in living at all?
Amanda hasn’t thought about it, but when Lily tells her to stop drinking the drugged beverage and confesses her plan, having a change of mind, she keeps drinking anyway. By doing so, she answers Lily’s question without any doubt.
At that moment, Amanda makes a sacrifice. To give up her life so that her friend can accomplish what she desires. Lily makes a sacrifice, too. To let go of her moral compass and kill her stepfather, all in the hopes of having a more stable future as molded by her imagination, her perception of what is right for her. After killing Mark, Lily smears blood all over the drugged Amanda, pinning the murder on her. She’s visibly shaken, but the deed is done.
We pick up some time later at a restaurant where Yelchin’s Tim is a valet. Lily drops by for a college interview and encounters Tim. Tim fails to avoid the woman who hired him to kill her stepdad but he won’t dare go to the cops because of his own past. An awkward conversation follows where Tim expresses his deepest sympathies for her loss.
The conversation eventually leads to Amanda who’s locked up in a facility. Lily received a letter from her and Tim wants to know what it said. She tells him that she “just threw it away.”
These final words can strike some as callous and others as stoic. The bottom line is that Lily is suppressing how she truly feels as she walks away into the restaurant, a restaurant where she’s meeting a college admissions officer her dead stepdad knew. The scene epitomizes vaulting ambition and a ruthless edge to her behavior. This wasn’t the Lily we knew at the beginning of the film. But it’s the Lily we have at the end. Someone who’s made sacrifices, giving up pieces of her old self while building up new ones.
Being an adult, I suppose means being able to do things you weren’t capable of as a child, whether they are good or bad. And Lily certainly accomplished that, physically and mentally, developing a thick skin as a shield to fight her way through life.
The Titular Thoroughbreds
As the film draws to a close, we see Amanda at the facility, reading the letter she wrote Lily in the background. In the dying moments, she recalls a dream she sees frequently.
She’s looking down at suburbia from the soul of her dead horse Honeymooner, the one she killed. She witnesses people moving in and out of homes, eventually becoming self-absorbed with their mobile devices, forgetting to do much else, and they disappear into the internet. Houses collapse, weeds grow deep. Then the horses take over, with Thoroughbred stallions taking over and living freely, mating and galloping around uninhibited by humanity. As she ends recalling this dream, she smiles.
I want to believe this is a genuine smile. That the girl who couldn’t feel now finds herself able to do just that. That she, too, has transformed in a way just like her friend. Giving up a part of herself to adopt something new. Finding a smile and happiness in a dream about something other than you, horses to be exact, signifies the capacity to be empathetic. Something her friend couldn’t do, a profound discovery for someone who saw the world through logic and reason, someone who used to fake her smiles and laughter.
Our paths to adulthood are different, but they all comprise
The genius stroke is that we recognize that these two characters have now left their childhood and adolescence behind, but there’s a pervasive ambivalence about the paths they took. There
However you decide to grow up, though, don’t kill your stepdad.