Watching eccentric low-budget films is a gamble. The writer and director, one and the same in this case, is at liberty to avoid using formulae in his creative process, the result of which is about as likely for the viewer to be either rewarding or punishing.
Wikipedia says Thoroughbreds is a thriller. It does have faint echoes of something like Rear Window thematically, but thriller is still not the word I would use. It also says comedy, but I remember laughing on only a couple of occasions while watching it. Despite this, I still found it enjoyable, and odd in a positive way.
The film is about two teenagers from a rich area of Connecticut. One of them, Amanda, appears to be psychopathic. Lily, Amanda’s friend, is not, but Amanda’s personality gradually impresses itself upon Lily throughout the film, eventually culminating in their plan to kill Lily’s obnoxious stepfather Mark. First they intend to blackmail a third party into doing it for them. When that fails, they speak of doing it together, and finally Lily just kills him herself.
From the outset, the soundtrack is remarkably good at setting a tone, particularly those parts that were ambient or just sounds rather than songs, e.g. discordant violins and what sounded like a guitar string snapping, along with odd jungle-music percussion, which was appropriately unnerving during tense moments, or character-establishing moments such as Amanda’s arrival at Lily’s house near the beginning as she explores all the bizarre, quaint finery within; Roman busts, a katana, etc, which gives an impression of Mark as an obsessive of some sort who likes to enrich himself with various aspects of Eastern and Western culture. This goes alongside the camerawork, the most striking example of which, and recurrent all through the film, involves following the subject just behind and above the head, with an attendant unsettling effect.
The only song I remember enjoying greatly was one made by an obscure French singer, and it plays while Lily experiences doubts about going through with the plan. This uncertainty later dissolves.
One will find that the aforementioned house, although aesthetically pleasing, is irrelevant to the plot. It is not, as far as I recall, made clear whether it belongs to Lily’s stepfather or to her biological family, but I would not think too much of it since it just serves as a backdrop and as a vessel for the eccentric outward expressions of Mark’s personality. That and the noisy contraption he keeps upstairs, on which he is killed by Lily near the end of the film. Similarly, the various shenanigans of Lily’s school life are barely worth paying attention to and only come up fleetingly, although it is implicit that she too has psychological problems.
The film depicts, in a way that reminds me somewhat of The Crush, a particular, unusually modern instantiation of WASP culture, which is as fascinating as it is charming even though it seems quite divorced from present reality. The most clear and obvious common thread is the convention of horse-riding in prestigious schools, which comes up at the start of Thoroughbreds when Amanda gets in trouble for gruesomely killing her horse. This is apparently what the title refers to.
The handling of Amanda’s psychopathic personality was fun; it becomes the subject of a lot of talk between the two protagonists, and Amanda remarks at some point that her diagnosis consisted of the psychiatrist’s “throwing random pages of the DSM-V at her”, briefly mentioning schizoid symptoms and other illnesses. She acts out her “feelinglessness” in an engaging manner, such as winning £300 (or whatever) in an online game and having no reaction whatsoever. This is what leads to, arguably, the climax of the film when Amanda allows Lily to drug her and then land her in a situation most people would obviously not willingly submit themselves to. Amanda does not care, because she lives, as she says, a “meaningless life”.
The division of the film into chapter headings, what would normally be called “acts” I think, seemed superfluous even if they did not noticeably detract from the experience; this was an effort to appear quirky that the film could easily have waived. Do most books have 4-5 chapters? The runtime I definitely appreciated, however. It is exactly as long as it needs to be; I normally have to go looking for pre-Code films to find stuff shorter than two hours, and Thoroughbreds is 90 minutes, so I at no point felt bored.