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Thoroughbreds: The Power of the Unseen

The minimally distributed indie-film, Thoroughbreds, is yet another recent case of underwhelming marketing and critical attention paid to solid filmmaking. As an official selection for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival it was later distributed by Focus/Universal Pictures in March of 2018. Written and directed by first-time-filmmaker Cory Finlay it is an exemplary example of creative and compelling storytelling that a majority of big-budget Hollywood projects lack. The cinematography, editing, and performances by both Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke are invigorating. Beyond these basic tenants of couch-surfing film criticism, the film displays multiple narrative techniques that lends itself to the post-modern film, which is both why it is great but also why it may have fallen under the “mass audience” radar.

Let me explain, spoiler-free.

Example of genre confusion

In the marketing materials of the film there are several tossed around catch phrases such as: “A pitch-black comedy thriller,” or “If you liked Heathers you'll love this.” What the phrases illuminate is the general confusion over the film’s genre. It is true, the genre is tough to nail down and unfortunately, modern audiences love being able to pigeonhole films within specific categorization of genre. This is slightly contradictory for audiences that love pointless humor injected into tense or emotionally overwrought scenes (particular major studio pieces will remain nameless). But Thoroughbreds does just that only on a more impactful scale: It is darkly funny, tense, dramatic, and violent—occasionally—all within one scene. Shot sequences throughout the film display both conventional and less-than-conventional pacing and shot-counter-shot editing (there is a break in the 180 degree rule at one point in the film).

The plot itself also ceases typical definition and description as per IMDB’s less than stellar attempt: “Two upper-class teenage girls in suburban Connecticut rekindle their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. Together, they hatch a plan to solve both of their problems-no matter what the cost.” Honestly, this isn’t what the film is about. The description is a surface level pseudo-outline of the action that refuses to mention that Amanda (Olivia Cooke) murders her horse and is a source of fascination for Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) due to the grotesque nature of the murder and Amanda’s inability to feel human emotions. Lily also is dealing with her (abusive?) step-father who also seems robotic, yet un-remorseful for his actions toward the young girl’s desire to leave the house and his authoritative rule. There is a type of crime-thriller narrative that interweaves among the two girls’ rekindled relationship and antipathy toward their bourgeois, materialistic setting. The murder plot, itself, does not seem to serve both of the girls, as Amanda is somewhat distanced to Lily’s domestic struggles.

Here’s where the postmodern comes in.

Aside from the overall plot, the film deals with much deeper themes of postmodern existence that are illustrated through the spectators’ investment in character identification that ceases to be completely defined by the film’s conclusion. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Where does the subject (spectator) stand among the amoral actions of both Lily and Amanda? All of these questions are posited, yet, remain unanswered during the film’s somewhat ambiguous denouement. The film’s editing and narrative structure plays with audience identification, both morally, and narratively. It is clear that the protagonists are Amanda and Lily only it isn’t as clear by the end of the film if both of them are truly protagonists (one, or both, may be classically described antagonists). In a brief sense, almost all the characters—apart from, perhaps, Amanda—in the film display a surface-level appearance that is counter to their true selves. And this brings us to my final point: utilization of the unseen.

Finally, the film utilizes—what I will label—the unseen to heighten themes of postmodern society: materialism has caused boredom in both Amanda and Lily, objective morals and reality are transposed for subjective desire, and the idea of the “self” is fractured and typically difficult to objectively identify. The film utilizes a notion of off-screen action (the unseen) to stand in for suspense, violence, and character subjectivity. For instance: Lily’s grief against her stepfather is never truly witnessed by the audience but is merely spoken about or seen through tense dialogue interaction. In one of the film’s opening sequences the camera tracks Amanda through Lily’s expansive mansion and she pauses at an envelope full of cash addressed to Lily. Later during their first SAT tutor session, Amanda asks Lily about the money, which she obfuscates and claims is for a broken laptop (which she is seen using her laptop later in the film). The first appearance of the step-father onscreen is established through a bizarre dialogue in which he wishes to see Lily in his study upstairs, alone. It is unclear if a sexually-inappropriate relationship has transpired (Lily being paid to stay quiet) as the film distances itself greatly from sexuality in general. The arrival of Lily’s stepfather also is juxtaposed against a classical Hollywood film that the two girls are watching. In an intertextual turn, Lily describes how the actors were probably engaged in intercourse off-screen to counter both of their “loveless Hollywood marriages.” Amanda then enacts “the technique” where she forces false tears to flow, which Lily is bizarrely fascinated by. It is then that Lily’s stepfather enters and he attempts to send Amanda home and Lily to his study. Thematically the sequence situates all important narrative information within the unseen. Amanda illustrates her inability to feel emotions through drawing up fake ones, Lily emphasizes her dismay at her mother’s loveless relationship to her stepfather by writing a false-narrative of the actors in the film’s off-screen lives, and Lily’s stepfather interrupts in an attempt to coerce Lily upstairs where they then hear his rowing machine. In essence, what is below the surface, or unseen, is the dynamic which drives a bulk of the film.

Tim experiences the upper-class existence of Lily and Amanda

The unseen also is created as Lily’s personality switches on camera from a bubbly teenager to the more stoic and conniving traits she exhibits throughout the remainder of the film. This transformation only happens after Amanda awkwardly tries to hug her (Amanda cannot understand human emotions). Tim (Anton Yelchin), the drug-dealer, also exhibits similar notions of seen and unseen as he depicts himself as a successful drug cartel kingpin as opposed to how Lily and Amanda actual draw out his true self. Dramatic—and violent—scenarios play themselves out off-screen and are only witnessed by the audience post-action. Lily’s stepfather’s rowing machine is heard but never seen, similarly to how the graphic photos of Amanda’s murder of her horse are displayed on Lily’s laptop, yet never seen. In a genius parallel, the murder of Amanda’s horse (crucial to the teen’s murder subplot) lingers, never witnessed and only verbally described by Amanda (conveniently while she is playing a giant game of outdoor chess and holding the knight piece) and only seen by Lily within the film’s diegesis. The violent catalyst for the plotting of murder remains unseen, as does the true nature of character subjectivity. True thematic content is given the audience visually, such as Lily’s underwater choking scene that highlights her true character and intentions for the plot; none of which is ever described or emphasized in detail throughout.

This type of distanced character-audience identification, ambiguous denouement, and genre-bending stylistics all make for the perfect postmodern film that is both accessible, yet, enigmatic.

-Dustin Fisher

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