Double Feature: Capitalism Kills
Double features are a great way to watch movies. Well-selected double features complement each other like food and wine, bringing out hidden flavors or making you realize new aspects of something familiar. If you’re ever in need of a keenly paired set of movies to screen, check out our handy pre-packaged Double Features category– complete with theme breakdowns, aesthetic comparisons, and honest commentary about which movie should be the leading feature.
Capitalism, as well as pretty much every other economic system, has been harvested for its satirical value for years. Movies like Magic Mike and The Big Short have done a solid job of highlighting the hypocrisy and rigidity of a capitalistic society in a pretty, half-naked, Channing Tatum’s-body-moving-like-water package. Ok, so part of that only applies to Magic Mike, but you get my point; those movies explore issues without skewering them. Not the case with the films in this double feature, which skewer, roast, and serve up the worst parts of capitalism on a metal spike.
Lead Feature: Thoroughbreds (2018)
Thoroughbreds is a collection of some of our favorite things here at Back Row: female anxiety, sociopathic girls, mocking the ridiculousness of the “upper crust” world, and Anton Yelchin. The basic premise is two teenagers, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), come up with a plan to murder Lily’s stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), who is trying to pack her off to military school. This is a story we’ve seen before on both the screen and sometimes in real life, but Thoroughbreds adds extra layers by setting the story in an extremely wealthy suburb of Connecticut and making one of the girls a straight up sociopath.
The girls formulate their plan, making a decision based on emotionless Amanda’s recommendation that they find someone else to commit the crime when they’re both out of town. They approach and eventually blackmail Tim (Anton Yelchin) into doing it for them. Tim’s certainly never gone hungry, but it’s made clear that he’s from a more middle-class area (specifically Westchester, still pretty bougie), which he carries as if he grew up on the streets of the roughest neighborhood.
When Tim fails to follow through on their “deal," Lily takes matters quite literally into her own hands. She puts a plan into action to frame Amanda for the crime then tries to stop it by telling Amanda what she was going to do. Amanda decides to go along with the frame-up so Lily not only gets away with it, she gets everything else she wanted out of life as well.
To label Thoroughbreds as strictly satire would be limiting it. There are many satirical elements in it but it also plays pretty close to reality, especially in regards to the characterizations of the girls. What gives the movie its bite is that the cold, rational Amanda ultimately becomes more sympathetic than the fragile, emotional Lily. As Amanda says early in the film, not having feelings doesn’t make her a bad person; she just needs to try really hard to be good. She’s used to being an outcast, and has a sharp eye for seeing through the shit of the materialistic, affected world she’s been raised in.
Lily, on the other hand, is influenced by everything around her very deeply, which includes Amanda. By the end, Lily has become a product of a caste system that delivered her into luxury, providing her with everything she wanted, as well as a product of Amanda’s detachment. While Amanda navigated the world aware of what made her different, Lily has no such self-awareness. She wants what she wants, will stop at nothing to get it – she has never had to question why she shouldn’t. As the film fades to black, she still doesn’t.
Second billed: Cheap Thrills (2014)
While Thoroughbreds is a sharp, twisty movie with a few scenes of blood and violence, it is still one that most people can sit through. That might not be the case for this next one: the remarkable, cringe-inducing, stomach churning rollercoaster that is Cheap Thrills.
Cheap Thrills takes place over the course of one night, literally ending at dawn the next day. It revolves around Pat Healy’s character Craig, an aspiring writer who’s been working a day job as a mechanic to pay the bills for his family. He and his wife live in a modest apartment with their infant, and seem to be relatively happy together. The movie opens with them fooling around in bed together in a playful and sensual scene that’s interrupted by their baby crying, which causes them both to laugh. There’s no hint of them wanting to be disgustingly rich or regretting where they find themselves; they just want to be able to live comfortably. As is the case with most movies (and life), that is a dream too far. Craig finds an eviction notice on the door of the apartment as he leaves for work in the morning. Once at work, he is let go due to poor performance. He just can’t seem to get the hang of a more physical, mechanical job.
Depressed, concerned, and now jobless, Craig heads to a bar where he runs into an old friend Vince played with slimey ease by the remarkable Ethan Embry. This is a bit of a side note but does anyone else remember Ethan Embry as an adorable, baby-faced little man in 90’s teen movies? He has since evolved into playing dirty, sleazy, sometimes downright psychotic characters, and damn, is he good at it! He’s easily my favorite part of this movie that I totally love.
Where was I? Right, so Vince and Craig are drinking and talking, complaining about how fucked up their lives are currently, when they’re approached by Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton) who tell them they’ve got a proposition for them. It’s Violet’s birthday and apparently they have a tradition of finding strangers to play a version of truth or dare in exchange for money, except it’s all dares that are clearly escalating into craziness. The dares start low-key – who can take this shot first, who can get that cocktail waitress to slap them – before cranking up to more dangerous fare. Colin and Violet invite the two back to their house to continue the game. Naturally, this is where the night really goes off the rails.
The dares start getting hostile. Craig and Vince are pitted against each other, and with every proposition and pay-out, the two get angrier; not at the puppet masters pulling the strings but at each other. At one point, Vince gets Craig alone and tells him that he saw the safe where the couple keeps their money, it’s unlocked, and he wants to rob them. This is a pivotal scene because, like Amanda in Thoroughbreds, it sets Vince up as low-down and slippery, while Craig tries to talk him out of it, maintaining his air of righteousness. Even before the “game” starts to get wild, Craig explains that everything he’s doing is for his family, while Vince is only doing it for himself. This scene is supposed to be the clincher of that: even with the motive of family behind him, Craig won’t stoop as low as Vince.
The robbery does not go off as planned but Colin and Violet offer to forgive the botched attempt and keep playing. Craig initially leaves after he gets enough to cover past due bills but returns soon after. He knows that once that money’s gone, he’s in the same situation so he’s back to give himself some breathing room. The option of cutting off his pinky finger is floated for $25,000 but the two friends begin to undercut each other, offering to do it for less and less. Ah, the free market.
The natural escalation of the dares become gruesome. Severed fingers are eaten then vomited back up, small animals are accidentally killed then purposefully devoured, and eventually, Vince is taken aside by Colin and told that he can take all the marbles if he kills Craig. Vince’s reaction is a mixed bag but, armed with a switchblade, he goes inside and looks to be making murderous moves. Finally, he puts the knife down, turns away from Craig and announces he’s leaving, which is when Craig shoots him. At dawn, Craig leaves the house with Colin and Violet wishing him a fond farewell and returns home, giving us the arresting final image of a mangled, bloody Craig trying to comfort his wailing infant.
Aside from the scene where Vince tries to convince Craig to rob the couple, the final dare is a crucial moment for another reason. The two men have different weapons, so while Vince has to grapple with the idea of stabbing or slitting the throat of his friend, Craig only has to fire a gun. It’s a less intimate and grisly way of killing; one that can happen from across the room and, if done correctly, can end a life in a manner of seconds. Like the scene with the pinky, this is a clear sharp jab at a rigged system, as both are offered the same options but with unequal tools.
Vince, like Amanda, becomes a more sympathetic character because they both understand the darkness in themselves and know how far they’ll go. Craig and Lily get to a point of no return and seem to think that since they’ve come this far then they might as well keep going. It’s the idea of “in for a penny, in for a pound” taken to an extreme. For movies that are skewering a system based on profit, that sounds like an apt philosophy.
Thematic similarities: Money, murder, class differences, morality
Aesthetic similarities: Clean and simple color schemes, dominate use of red, dark and light