On Breaking Rules: Dark Night of the Soul

The caped defender broods on a rooftop. The alcohol-sodden cop returns to his bottles. The hero finds themselves alone. Everyone is dead. All is lost. This is dark night of the soul, the last fall before the climax, and it is here to make the climax feel impressive and big and hard-won. Before the climax, a moment is needed when everything falls apart and our heroes return to their old vices so that finally, one last time, they can overcome them. They are most obvious in superhero movies. The ending of Avengers: Infinity War and beginning of Avengers: Endgame is really one big dark night of the soul, before the final triumph. But what if there is no triumph? What if no one learns anything? Such is exactly the case in Thoroughbreds, which doesn’t have, even can’t have, that moment.

Thoroughbreds follows posh, upper-class high-schooler Lily, who strives to be as perfect as the multi-million dollar home she lives in, and her friend Amanda, whose lack of emotion quickly pegs her as a sociopath, as they scheme to kill Lily’s stepfather. I’ve seen it described as American Psycho meets Heathers, which feels like a pretty apt description. The movie’s tone is often flat, emotionless, and removed, and over the course of the film it asks us to consider: What does it really mean to be a sociopath?

I’m going to spoil this movie right up to the climax, so be warned. It seems obvious that Amanda will be pushing the murder. She suggests it in the first place, she brutally killed a horse, and she’s a sociopath. Lily, on the other hand, is normal, relatable, in a restricting and unpleasant family situation that garners her our sympathy. But over the course of the movie, it becomes clear that there’s more than one way to be a sociopath. Amanda may not care if Lily’s step-father is dead, but she wants Lily to kill him “because it’s the right thing to do,” not just because Lily’s upset. It turns out Amanda killed the horse because its leg was broken and her mother wouldn’t pay a vet to do it properly. Amanda had to do it. It was the right thing to do. Lily, however, has no empathy. It is, ironically, her stepfather, obnoxious, misogynistic, controlling, who understands best: “Because in your brain, all these people are just little offshoots of your consciousness. Just little helpers put there to give you things and to bolster your confidence. We’re all your maids, aren’t we? Your cleaning ladies. Your personal trainers.”

Which brings us to the climax. Amanda and Lily have failed to hire someone to kill Lily’s stepfather and after Lily’s step-father berates her, Amanda agrees with him: “I wouldn’t say empathy is your strongest suit…You’re just not a very considerate person.” In a different movie, this could be the dark night of the soul. No longer are the insults coming from an asshole we can ignore, but from a trusted confidant and friend. Lily must, terrifyingly, confront her worst flaws. But that’s not what happens. The tone is so flat that it doesn’t seem to really matter. It feels small. And, really, the critique isn’t coming from a trusted confidant because that would require Lily to see Amanda as a friend, instead of a tool.

But we’re not at the climax yet. Maybe there’s a dark night of the soul in the next scene. As Amanda and Lily watch a movie, Lily asks, “Do you remember that stuff you were saying to Tim the other day?…That stuff about how his life isn’t worth living?…Do you ever ask that question about yourself?…If you can’t feel anything. Like even happiness or…” She pauses, realizes how awful the question sounds, and apologizes. Again, this could be a devastating moment, a moment where Lily looks at Amanda’s shock and sees herself, sees how she’s betrayed her friend by viewing her life as worthless because it’s not like her own. Or Amanda could call her out and storm away. But Amanda, after a brief moment of thought, isn’t upset. She says she hadn’t thought about it. In the next moment, Lily admits that she drugged Amanda’s juice and intended to frame Amanda for killing her step-father. There’s another pause, a moment where it’s so tempting to read devastation in Amanda’s face, and then Amanda drinks her juice and settles in, claiming she is only a skilled imitator at friendship – though of course it is Lily who is only imitating friendship. While Amanda’s line of dialogue suggests some wallowing, maybe even guilt, or at the very least some short-sightedness, it isn’t a reflection, a moment of loss and growth. It doesn’t spark something in Lily. Nothing has changed.

The closest moment we get to the dark night of the soul is actually after the climax, when it’s far too late. After killing her step-father, Lily smears blood on Amanda’s arm and face, and then climbs onto the couch, pulling Amanda’s arm around her. Her breath hitches, and she squeezes Amanda’s hand, but there is no comfort to be had. There never was because Amanda can only act out comfort. She can’t cradle Lily and feel her pain. And from Lily there is no true vulnerability, no possibility of change, because she’s only able to open up when she knows Amanda can’t see it.

There is no dark night of the soul because no one cares enough to be hurt. Neither can lose everything because they have no one to lose. They could have. Amanda could have built a friendship out of trust, mutual interest, acceptance, things other than emotions. Lily could have tried to understand Amanda, instead of filing her away as emotionless, and therefore meaningless and easy to betray. But in the end they don’t care about what they lost because their friendship is ultimately what they hold most dear, which isn’t saying very much at all.

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