Remember the name Cory Finley.
Until a year or two ago, the unknown 29-year-old playwright was working for a New York tutoring agency and workshopping his scripts in playwriting incubators, including Youngblood, Uncharted and Clubbed Thumb. One unproduced play, “Thoroughbred,” caught the eye of film producer Kevin J. Walsh when Finley’s agent sent it to him. Finley, for the first time, started to think of it in terms of a movie.
Retitled “Thoroughbreds,” Finley’s feature debut as a writer and director — a story of two wealthy suburban teens (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch” and Olivia Cooke of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) who hatch a criminal plot — was one of the best-reviewed films at Sundance last year. The movie, which is now hitting theaters, has also stumped critics, who have engaged in a kind of weird parlor game of comparisons in a struggle to explain the twisty, darkly satiric and disturbingly violent tale.
That’s no surprise, coming from an artist whose 2015 play “The Feast” was compared by the New York Times to “a soap opera with H.P. Lovecraft as script supervisor.” We spoke to Finley by phone last month.
Q: "Thoroughbreds" is hard to pigeonhole, though a lot of people have certainly tried. No Film School called it " 'Heathers' meets 'Cruel Intentions' meets 'The Shining,' by way of 'Equus.' " Indiewire described it as "'American Psycho' meets 'Heathers,' as directed by a young Park Chan-wook." How would you blurb it?
A: I usually talk about it as a neo-noir — a psychological thriller mixed with some dark comic elements. I avoid comparisons in general. The joking one I would give people is: It’s “Mean Girls” meets Hitchcock’s “Rope,” just because it sounds funny. “Mean Girls” is not really an accurate comparison.
Q: It's not entirely inaccurate, either. What do you make of the subgenre of movies about conniving, conspiratorial teenage girls, if such a thing exists? Are we, as a culture, afraid of adolescent girls?
A: I think that certainly the subgenre exists, but I wasn’t setting out to consciously make an entry into it. When I was writing this — as a play, not a movie — I originally wrote a version of the script where the predecessor of Olivia’s Amanda character was a boy. There is this whole genre of movies about young women scheming together. But I really want to steer clear of what the cultural implications of that may be. In talking to my girlfriend, my sister, my female friends about their experience with their female friends in high school, it just seemed like those friendships were more complex and interesting than my own male friendships.
Q: Amanda has this great line: "You cannot hesitate. The only thing worse than being incompetent, or being unkind, or being evil, is being indecisive." In terms of storytelling and style, I would call "Thoroughbreds" extraordinarily decisive. Where does that decisiveness come from?
A: I’m really glad that you highlighted that line. I felt this special sort of rush writing it, thinking of it. There’s a lot of what Amanda says that was, in the writing process, like me saying things to myself. One of the qualities that I hate most in myself is my own indecisiveness. And the chance to do this, as a movie — to just jump in and tell people that I want to direct it, never having directed anything before — the whole thing definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone and was really freeing. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, in a certain way. I do tend to love bold movies, ones that force you to either love them or hate them.
Q: Such as?
A: I’ve always liked movies that seem to have their own internal rhythm and logic. Movies that you enjoy more the second or third time, because you have to catch the movie’s pace to see where it’s going. The one recent movie that springs to mind that I’m always evangelizing for, because I think more people should see it, is “Raw,” by Julia Ducournau.
Q: The one about a young woman in veterinary school who becomes a cannibal?
A: It’s the most wonderful setup. There’s this girl, a vegetarian. She takes part in a hazing ritual where she has to try raw meat, and then that leads her down this dark road to cannibalism. The word “uncompromising” gets tossed around a lot, but it’s a very uncompromising movie. It’s very unconcerned with trying to convince you to like it.
Q: What sort of commentary is your film making about class, money and privilege?
A: I’m hesitant to give an authorial note on intention, beyond what’s in the movie. But I wanted to force the audience to identify with two extremely privileged characters and to see how their privilege pushes them toward certain decisions, but also causes them pain. I was interested in seeing how the wealth that surrounds them seeps into the ways they know how to relate to one another. In a capitalist system, there develops a hierarchy to everything, even social interaction.
Q: There's a lot of talk about empathy these days, especially as it relates to the current occupant of the White House. Amanda tells Lily, "Empathy isn't your strong suit." At the same time, Amanda's not exactly the most empathetic human being either. Are you suggesting that wealth is toxic to empathy?
A: Absolutely. When I was growing up, my mom would always say that one of my greatest qualities was that I was very empathetic. That’s part of what made me want to tell stories — to put myself in other people’s shoes. I was interested in whether empathy is necessary in determining whether you’re a good or bad person. The character in my movie who appears to be the most empathetic one — without spoilering too heavily — ends up being the one who is more capable of bad moral decisions. Her self-sacrifice is a radically anti-capitalist act, I guess. She’s given away her future, which is what I think these characters are so obsessed about. I was just interested in starting with this person that you think is broken and one that you think is whole and then questioning, in the context of our culture, what “broken” and “whole” actually mean.
Q: I love the fact that Amanda calls Steve Jobs her hero, a man that some have described as a brilliant monster. What are you suggesting by making him the role model for a young woman with obvious psychological issues?
A: I have a lot of high-achiever-type friends who really idolize people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. They’re complicated people to idolize because, well [laughing], I’m hesitant to say.
Q: Oh, go ahead. Steve Jobs is no longer with us. You can talk about him, right?
A: I think of him as so profoundly influential, in the way that we all live, through these little devices that I’m talking to you on now. Multinational corporations are sort of these pure avatars of capitalism, and so powerful, in ways that governments aren’t. I think Jobs is an interestingly complicated role model for Amanda to idolize, but I think there’s maybe a bit of Jobs in both of them. My feelings about Jobs are exactly the sort of complicated, contradictory ones that I was trying to explore in the movie. Steve Jobs is a person whose gifts to the world I am personally reliant upon — he has had an incredible, almost infinite effect on my life — but I also fear so much of his effect on the global economy.
Q: What's next?
A: I love all the new storytelling tools I’ve gotten access to as a director, rather than just a writer. I’m interested in continuing to work in genre-based — and genre-bending — stories like “Thoroughbreds.” A lot of the filmmakers that I aspire to be like gradually built their careers, starting small, with ever-more-ambitious movies: the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Denis Villeneuve. It’s clear that these filmmakers are responsive to an audience — they’re not working in monastic isolation — but they’re still following what is interesting to them.
Thoroughbreds (R, 90 minutes). At area theaters.