We like teens when they behave badly. Heathers. Gossip Girl. We have a keen awareness of teenagers in conversation and thus a fear of what they might cook up. It’s in the national conversation right now, for sure, as we wonder about teens plotting to shoot up their schools or take down the National Rifle Association, forcing us to pull television reboots of ’80s movies because the similarities hit too close to home. Thoroughbreds understands this innately, but its teenage moments are only the window dressing for a noir-drenched 90-minute thriller from first-time director Cory Finley.
Though it’s in the same genre as Heavenly Creatures or Poison Ivy, the film this reminded me of most was Strangers on a Train. Two characters drawn together by destiny, Lily (Ana Taylor-Joy from Split) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke from Bates Motel), aren’t overtly sexualized the way Ivy’s Drew Barrymore was, with her teased hair, short shirt, and come-hither shoulder pads. They still ooze sex, yes, but it’s in a coded language reminiscent of Pre-Code Hollywood. It comes as little surprise that Bruno Antony is obsessed with tennis star Guy Haines in Hitchcock’s Strangers. Following a chance meeting on a train, Antony is transfixed with Haines’ poshness and clearly sexually enticed by him. Hitchcock had many characters whose homosexuality was covert—just take a look at Rope and condragulations to Norman Bates—and you can smell it on Antony the moment you meet him.
Granted, Strangers on a Train is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, and the revered lesbian novelist also crafted The Price of Salt, which would later turn into Todd Haynes’ Carol, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, the original Call Me by Your Name. I doubt Finley views his film like this, as he claimed to have purposefully removed sexuality from the film, in an interview with Vulture.
“It was interesting to me, taking teenage girls—who I think are some of the most over-sexualized beings in our culture—and making a movie that is about everything in their lives except sexuality,” Finley said. “But of course some sort of subconscious sexuality is present in any movie, and without overstating the point, there’s a little bit of a sadomasochist push-pull to the way Amanda and Lily build a relationship together.”
You only have to watch Amanda teach Lily “The Technique” to see that at any moment, their sadomasochism could turn into a lurid romance. It’s when Amanda teaches Lily that to cry on cue you need to gasp for air, almost choking yourself to force tears. At certain points in the film, the girls put on airs, using smoke and mirrors to conceal themselves from the other. Amanda is stricken with the inability to feel anything whatsoever, which makes her matter-of-fact approach to life seem deadpan at times, and utterly cruel at others. And even she understands that she’s trapped in a cat-and-mouse game with Lily, even if she’s not sure why she’s playing it.
The inclusion of the late Anton Yelchin (in his final film) as a potential patsy for the murder scheme the girls cook up is also classic noir, yet Finley knows enough about the genre to subvert expectations. There’s no plan gone awry that ends in a shootout like Double Indemnity. There are barely any real double-crosses in the film. The two leads sparkle because they’re cunningly self-aware from the moment Amanda suggests that Lily murder her cruel stepfather, a la Kevin Williamson’s Scream. At no point does the plot take them in directions they haven’t careened to themselves. It’s beautiful watching such wicked games crafted and played out to perfection, without the interference of the follies that often befall men when they seek to commit crimes in any typical Hitchcock film or noir.
Which isn’t to say there are no consequences in this movie. Beyond being terribly funny, it’s wild as hell and aggressively grotesque. What makes it feel so sinister, however, is the way Finley employs Aristotle’s unities. Unity of place during the film’s climax relegates most of the film’s horrors to off-screen so we can only use our imaginations, much in the way the Greeks used to conjure up their own images of Medea feasting on her children until she stumbled back onto the proscenium, drenched in blood. This neo-noir still packs a closer just as punishing as Chinatown, but this time you can only hear the screams.