Working Harder to be Good: Performative Vulnerability in ‘Thoroughbreds’

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy in Thoroughbreds (2017)
Images: Focus Features.

A thoroughbred is a horse of pure breed, used primarily as a racehorse or for breeding purposes. They are known for their speed, their strength, for being hot blooded. They are animals of entertainment, of man’s indulgence in a service that results in maximum exertion, pain, and the performance of grace. Cory Finley’s directorial debut Thoroughbreds shares the same name, and it, too, is concerned with the performance of pain, of grace, and of violence. Opening with a side profile shot of Amanda (Olivia Cooke) locking eyes with her own horse, who we later learn she euthanises with a knife (“I looked at it as completing a task”), girl and animal mirror one another. The film asks us to explore the role violence plays in teenage girls’ lives, and the transactional relationship of service and girlhood.

“I just think you should be honest about your feelings, otherwise it starts to come out in passive aggressive ways,” Amanda declares. In the girl-world of Finley’s work, to feel is a form of brutality. There have been countless films that explore the savage teenager, from Heathers to The Hungers Games to Ginger Snaps to Swimfan, but it is within Thoroughbreds that the understanding of teenage performance and the mercilessness of girls is brought to the forefront.  The film is divided into four acts, originally intended to be produced as a staged play, and stars Amanda and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) as they perform friendship for one another. Two sides of the same coin hell-bent on desire and of the caricature of girlhood, Amanda and Lily navigate the possibility of killing Lily’s rich and aggressive step-father, Mark (Paul Sparks), a “cost/benefit analysis” of patricide.

Olivia Cooke in Thoroughbreds (2017)

Though friends since childhood, the upper-class girls grew distant after the death of Lily’s father, finally rekindling their relationship when Amanda’s mother pays Lily to be her daughter’s SAT tutor. When we first see them together on screen, Amanda is holding an ornamental sword, asking Lily if it belongs to her. “No, it’s my stepdads,” Lily replies, not making full eye contact with Amanda, who stands above her. This is the introduction of Mark’s presence within the film, as akin to a decorative tool of violence in which Lily and Amanda choose to wield. What is a weapon if not a rich girl’s plaything? The first time the girls touch, an awkward hug that leads to a tender embrace, Lily thinks of it as an attack. The language of Thoroughbreds is a conversation of violence and of this tender exchange, if we think of tenderness as the sharp pain before touching a wound.

“The Technique” is a running thread through the film, the wet heart of Lily and Amanda’s murderous relationship. It’s the performance of crying, of faking sensitivity and emotion for the benefit of another person. A quarter of the way into the film, Lily and Amanda sit watching Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A,discussing the authenticity of an actor’s tears. “So, you basically have to learn all the automatic processes that get triggered when you cry. Then you just manually generate each one. It feeds back into your brain, and then the tears come naturally.” Amanda teaches Lily “The Technique”, the two gasping and choking together, illuminated by the light of the black and white film about a poisoned drink. “It’s like you’re choking yourself from the inside,” Amanda says, encouraging the stroke of Lily’s throat. “The Technique” is a masturbatory act, it’s a self-indulgence of a body that oozes, that can perform pain and pleasure. As Tom Lutz explores in his history of tears, the crying performance has been documented throughout as an exercise of will and muscle, from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal (1872) to the physiological research of G.-B Duchenne. Yet, look no further than Taylor-Joy’s upright body as she is taught the liturgy of tears to understand that the performance of girlish pain is a learned skill. That the need to portray misery is fundamental to the girl coming of age. Amanda and Lily feed off one another, teaching each other how to cry; how to be selfish and cold; how to let go of the fear of punishment and revel in longing; how to kill. Of course, their richness and whiteness are the protective privileged barriers that enable them to do this, the two girls nevertheless consume one another in a dalliance of dramatized girlish voracity.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Thoroughbreds (2017)

The final act of the film takes place, like “The Technique’s” introduction, in front of the television. Acts 1-3 show a slow exploration of the numerous ways in which Lily teases out her understanding of interaction, all communication as transactional. When the pair finally decide to plot Mark’s death, Amanda plays a game of chess against herself as Lily watches. The game takes place outside, knee high stone chess pieces thrown around as methods of execution are discussed. Lily sits stiffly, the camera slowly zooming into her face and sunglasses-covered eyes. As the audience, we become engulfed in this face, in its inaccessibility, in these exchanges of Amanda and Lily. In terms of transaction, the relationship between Amanda’s bloody skill set and Lily’s own budding hunger is a non-zero-sum game. Sitting on the sofa in the final act, Lily demands to know if Amanda’s life is “worth” living as a result of her previously expressed notion that she does not feel emotion like everybody else, that she must “work harder to be good”. There is no vocal conclusion on Amanda’s behalf to this, though the willingness of Amanda for Lily to roofie her, fully embodying D.O.A from before, enabling Lily to kill Mark and set Amanda up, implies that Cooke’s character is a mode of commerce for Lily’s violence.

If anything highlights the performative nature of their relationship, it is this sacrifice of Amanda, a declaration of loyalty, love, or possibly just an acceptance of the “meaninglessness” of her existence. Like Falstaff in Henry V, Mark, the vain and unkind man, dies off screen, Lily finally silencing him as the camera stays on Amanda’s sleeping body. Lily returns, anoints Amanda in blood and cries into her arms. If their first embrace was delicate as a wound, their final is desperate and, for the first time in the entire film, private, as the score transforms to an ear-piercing pitch, silencing the gasps, cries, and tv. “The Technique” of tears is dismissed as Lily sobs into Amanda’s embrace, an act of release, of maybe regret, but regardless, it is a performance of silence and intimacy. In a narrative defined by the deception of one another and of the acting of emotion, this final scene allows Lily through tears and Amanda through sacrifice, a moment of authenticity and vulnerability.

by Eve Froude

Eve is a writer currently based in Cardiff. She writes primarily on female trauma, ghosts, and the ocean. Some of her favourite films include Stoker, You Were Never Really Here, and The Handmaiden, or anything involving selfish women. She has previously written for Girls on Tops, and in September will begin her MA in Film and Literature and the University of York. Twitter: @evefroude

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