Filmmakers are obsessed with young, beautiful, privileged white girls. Their cameras lovingly embrace their spot-free skin, dance longingly over their hairless creamy thighs and delve head-first into their wide-eyed deviance, usually against backdrops which enhance their beauty with a pinch of suburban opulence (The Virgin Suicides), or actuate their downfall (The Bling Ring).
On the face of it, Thoroughbreds – the debut film from Corey Finley and a breakout hit at Sundance – is another film about rich white girls. But through empathetic satire and pointed social commentary, it finds something new to say about youth and wealth in America.
I meet Cory Finley in The Rosewood hotel, in central London, which almost resembles the set of the film: towering elegance and plush furnishings. We're both left a bit breathless by it. "This place is amazing. I am not used to being in nice, film festival hotels like this," he laughs.
Finley grew up on the fringes of wealth in suburban St Louis, Missouri, "certainly in a well-off family, but not in an extreme upper class world", he says. "I felt close enough to that world to know its cultural particulars, but still a little bit different."
Starring Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) as horse-killing, emotionless teen outcast Amanda, and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as her rich friend, Lily, the movie dances on the heels of movies like Heathers as a non-gory upper-class thriller. The premise is unsettling: social outcast Amanda has brutally killed a horse (she says "euthanised") and been diagnosed with a range of mental health disorders because of it. Lily, an old friend who she used to go to school with, is being paid by Amanda's mother to hang out with her. Amanda visits Lily's lush house, all marble flooring and twisting gold staircases, where her mum is at the behest of her fitness-obsessed, controlling stepdad (the first time we meet Lily's mum, it's within an ominous-looking tanning bed, because "he likes me with a bit of colour"). The pair bond over their lack of scruples and a certain meanness of spirit while watching vintage films and sipping ice-cold drinks. They're so unfeeling they have to fake emotion to get what they want, Amanda teaching Lily how to fake-cry by sucking tiny little bits of air into her throat, mimicking the processes you go through when actually crying. Then, naturally, they come up with a plan to kill Lily's stepfather; the menacing sound of his rowing machine haunts the house at all hours and drives Lily up the wall.
The movie centres around the idea of empathy, which seems fitting in an era in which "millennials" are often described as being "hyper-empathetic". Ironically, in a previous VICE interview, Taylor-Joy actually defined herself as an "empath", someone who's highly sensitive to other people's emotions, even though her character appears to be the most cold-hearted of the pair. Finley says he was riffing on the bits of his own darkest nature when he thought the characters up. "I sometimes feel disturbed at how numb I can be about certain things," he says. "There's something appealing about kind of exploding that characteristic and expanding it, and making a whole character based around it." I get the feeling that Amanda and Lily are the types of girls he would have been bewitched by as a teenager, too nervous to actually carry out any dark fantasies of his own. "I had friends who would do crazier things," he says. "But I'd be like, 'Come on, guys, I don't think we should do this.'"
He went on: "I think I fret a lot about my numbness, so there's a little element of fantasy – what if I was completely OK with not feeling anything, and what if I kind of use that OK-ness as a source of strength? I don't know if that made that character a hero or a villain, but it was an interesting starting point."
For the most part, Finley reveals, Thoroughbreds was a blessed production. "We made straight offers to both of our lead actors, based on what I'd seen before, and they were our two top choices," he explains. "We were so lucky that they both said yes. That's when the movie got its momentum rolling." He managed to turn what was a play script into a movie script within a month due to Cooke's other filming constraints, and thinks the time pressure actually helped.
However, a few months after filming wrapped, Anton Yelchin – who plays downtrodden drug dealer, Tim – died in a freak accident after being hit by his own car. Playing what, in other movies, would be a classic "bad boy", placed there to corrupt one of the girls, Tim actually develops into a nuanced foil to the girls' deceptiveness. They try to bring him onboard to carry out their murderous plan. "Every time I watch the movie I feel like his character brings such an infusion of warmth and moral griminess, and just, like, light and excitement," says Finley. "He had exactly the same effect on set."
One of Yelchin's final roles, his performance changes the tone of the film. "I think the seeds are there, but the role, on paper, could go very flat… One of his strengths as an actor is that you really just feel for him," says Finley. And you do. In the context of the movie, despite being a seedy drug dealer with a suspicious past, he becomes both pitiable and redeeming.
Thoroughbreds is out in cinemas in March of 2018