Young Bloods: Teenage girls have murder on their minds in Cory Finley’s 'Thoroughbreds'

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Rich teens are a strange and scary breed in writer-director Cory Finley’s debut feature Thoroughbreds, out March 9 from Focus Features. Garnering critical acclaim upon its bow at last year’s Sundance, Thoroughbreds stars Anya Taylor-Joy, breakout star of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s Olivia Cooke as Lily and Amanda, two onetime best friends from a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Their friendship recently rekindled after a scandalous act of violence sent Amanda to the realm of social pariahs, the girls bond in their discussions of Lily’s hated stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). 

Specifically…they should really hire someone to kill him, right?

A razor-sharp thriller with a deep vein of dark comedy, Thoroughbreds was partially inspired by Finley’s own conflicted feelings towards the rich. “I grew up comfortably, but certainly not in the kind of wealth that the characters have,” he says. “I always had a handful of friends in high school and middle school that had these huge, palatial homes, and I definitely have formative memories of going over and playing their amazing videogames, and swimming in their pools and just loving the luxury of that world.” The ease and comfort of wealth appealed to Finley—as it does—but as he matured he came to “understand the power dynamics in wealth, and the hidden costs.” You “never see money change hands” between the super-rich, which means “you’re unaware of the violence that underpins wealth in a fundamental way. And I thought it was a rich world to set this story in—a story all about the lack of empathy and morality.”

The role of dressing Lily, Amanda and their various high-class confrères went to Alex Bovaird, who between Thoroughbreds and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey has emerged as one of the most exciting up-and-coming costume designers working today. Lily’s wardrobe, in particular, is striking, transitioning as it does from prim and proper prep couture to something darker and slouchier in a way that mirrors her psychological journey.

“The progression of costumes through the movie was something we spent a lot of time on in pre-production, probably as much time as we did going through the script,” notes Finley. “Alex came in with an amazing array of choices. She approaches costuming from a very sociological point of view.” Instagram was utilized for inspiration regarding the clothing habits of well-to-do teens; beyond that, Finley and Bovaird narrowed down their options to outfits that “had stylization to them and captured a little bit of that film noir silhouette.”

Finley’s neo-noir stylings go beyond clothes. For Thoroughbreds’ director of cinematography, Finley went with Lyle Vincent, whose work on black-and-white neo-noir A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night had impressed the director. The pair’s visual reference points included such classic noirs as Strangers on a Train, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice—“the great amoral murder-plot movies of the ’40s and ’50s. We talked about the light and shadow in those. We’re both big fans of the Coen Brothers and the way Roger Deakins shoots a lot of their great movies. And we talked a lot about this great photographer named Gregory Crewdson, who does very stylized, suburban noir-ish images that use a lot of really vivid blues and yellows and have a very particular lighting scheme to them.”

Finley’s other points of influence include David Lynch, for his use of sound design—an element that “people still don’t make enough use of” in movies, Finley argues, and one that Thoroughbreds’ supervising sound editor Gene Park handles particularly well—and The Shining, for Kubrick’s roving Steadicam shots through the Overlook Hotel.

Thoroughbreds’ version of the Overlook—one infested not by the supernatural but the entitled rich—was a McMansion located south of Boston. “When we were initially doing location scouting, all the houses that we were looking at were too classy,” Finley recalls. “We needed something more over the top. And that was what we found in this house.” The inviting personal touches of the family that lived there were cleared out, replaced by ostentatious accouterments that make Thoroughbreds’ primary location feel less like a home than the world’s gaudiest museum.

Remarkably, the house where Lily, her mother and her stepfather live manages to feel both cluttered and empty, side tables adorned with expensive-looking statues placed just-so simultaneously bearing down on Lily and sucking any feelings of warmth out of the air. As with the sound design and the costumes, Thoroughbreds’ set design is quite heightened; in one of the film’s showcase scenes, Lily and Amanda chat life and death in a yard dominated by a giant concrete chess set. The goal was for the house to feel “oppressive,” Finley explains, getting across the idea that “Lily is both a beneficiary of the privilege that she was born to and a prisoner of it.”

The pitch-perfect design work put into Thoroughbreds by Finley and his team results in a film that feels ever so slightly out of time, which is the sort of film Finley himself is drawn to: “I love when movies can feel very of the times they’re made in, but also have a weird, drifting sense of what is contemporary.” That sensibility is echoed by the movies Lily and Amanda are shown watching: “old, forgotten classic movies on some extended cable network in the middle of the night, rather than ‘Desperate Housewives’ or something I would watch.”

The cucumber-cool aesthetic makes Thoroughbreds’ mordant humor really pop. Tim, played by the late Anton Yelchin in one of his final roles, is a twenty-something wannabe drug kingpin desperate to prove his wrong-side-of-the-tracks bona fides to Lily and Amanda. His dramatic pronouncement that “you don’t know where I come from” is met by a deadpan Amanda, not missing a beat: “Westchester.”

Much of Thoroughbreds’ comedy and its drama—not to mention its more chilling moments—come from its characters’ dogged attempts to present themselves a certain way. Within the first 15 minutes, Amanda makes the announcement that “I don’t have feelings—ever,” a proclamation that’s challenged in small ways over the course of the film. Lily’s situation is the reverse: There’s a layer of darkness lingering under her aggressively spit-shined surface. “No one is fully what they’re saying they are,” Finley notes. “It’s this great trope of teenage movies, like The Breakfast Club: People trying to figure out what box they fit into.”

Of course, that film’s Bender never considered hiring someone to murder his father—so in terms of content, at least, you can more accurately label Thoroughbreds a modern-day Heathers. American Psycho comes to mind, as well, its characters sharing with Thoroughbreds’ a love of the presentational. (A further American Psycho connection: Finley says Amanda’s character first came into focus when he imagined her as “a kind of junior capitalist [with] this Ayn Rand element to her,” a sort of teenage Patrick Bateman sans the obsession with skincare. In one of the film’s more amusing running jokes, she repeatedly invokes the memory of her idol, Steve Jobs. “I’ve found that there’s a particular kind of person that really idolizes Steve Jobs,” Finley explains. “And I was interested in that voice coming through in a character who’s talking about murder plots.”)

That interplay between the fronts Lily and Amanda present to the outside world and who they really are inside—something that Finley wisely avoids going into in too much cut-and-dried detail, opting to keep things open to interpretation—makes the film’s central duo quite the psychologically complex pair. Much of that can be credited to the performances of Taylor-Joy and Cooke, who per Finley “were both very good with the technical work of thinking about how these characters carry themselves and how they dress and their physicality—their vocal timbre, all that kind of stuff.” Initially written as a stage play, Thoroughbreds was always “wordy, by design,” but Taylor-Joy and Cooke’s nuanced performances—not to mention Finley’s ability to utilize close-ups—enabled the director to chop away at the screenplay. “It’s a credit to both of their performances that in so many spots I was able to eliminate lines or whole sections of lines. Because with something they were doing with silence or a subtext they were bringing into an earlier line, they made a later line not necessary. That’s how you know you have good actors.”