USA (92 mi) 2017 ‘Scope d: Cory Finley
Not feeling anything doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, it just means that I have to try harder than everyone else to be good.
—Amanda (Olivia Cooke)
In a morbid throwback to GASLIGHT (1944), updated and revamped with a completely different outcome, this is actually one of the more thoroughly enjoyable film experiences of the year, a subversive horror comedy, a delight from start to finish, largely due to the heavy, overcontrolling style of the director that extends cinematic suspense, creating an atmosphere of dread and impending doom in every sequence, yet at the same time there’s underlying humor in just how dark and twisted it can feel, becoming shockingly clever throughout. Essentially a two-woman play written by the writer/director, the story consists of exploring what lies underneath the veneer of their darkly disturbing characters. Inspired by film noir classics like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Tay Garnett’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), but also dark indie classics like Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988) and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), old school cinema is given a fresh look with some new faces, Olivia Cooke from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily play two exceedingly bright suburban teenagers from Connecticut, but troubled, both products of privilege and the super wealthy, raised in state-of-the-art boarding schools, but tossed out for some heinous infraction that remains under the radar, protecting their privacy, spoiled and pampered beyond belief, used to getting anything they desire, where they’re actually bored most of the time, too smart for their own good, unable to process normal human behavior, instead they exist in an unfiltered state of egregious excess, existing only for themselves, plotting and scheming to get whatever they want, never allowing anyone or anything to stand in their way. Given this fierce attitude of independence, though thoroughly dependent upon parental financial support, they have to figure out where to draw the line between utter unabashed freedoms, with no restrictions whatsoever, ignoring any and all moral guidelines, and continuing to live in this excessively lavish lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed. The film is a comment on how the rich have lost any sense of empathy, and how social media creates a narcissistic moral vacuum, a disregard for consequences, creating a shallow culture of disaffected teens who lack the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, but think only of themselves, too bored to care, where the world is simply a cynical extension of their own pathetic lack of vision or concern.
What’s immediately apparent is an obliquely dissonant musical score from cellist Erik Friedlander along with a brilliant sound design by Roland Vajs create jarring effects, heard even before the characters are introduced, foreshadowing a tone of malevolence, yet what happens onscreen couldn’t be more proper and polite, where the use of language is exquisite. After a brief intro shows Amanda with a horse (details withheld until much later in the film), she is then seen getting dropped off in front of an immense mansion with an immaculate interior and landscaped grounds, where expensive antiques and artistic busts line each wall, greeted by another young girl her age, Lily, as the two are former friends that drifted apart after the death of Lily’s father. The two girls are polar opposites, as Amanda has had her share of issues, been in and out of psych hospitals, evaluated by dozens of doctors, yet couldn’t care less what other people think, acknowledging she’s truly different because she doesn’t really feel anything, no joy, no disappointment, literally nothing, so she gets by pretending to show concern, but it’s mostly acting techniques. Lily on the other hand is the perfect little protected princess, yet totally conniving and manipulating, overly concerned about her looks, dressing like a fashion model, seemingly emotionally suppressed. Amanda is totally candid, where there’s nothing holding her back, expressing exactly what she means to say, where her choice of words couldn’t be more precise, remarking on Lily’s anxious state of mind, stripping away all pretense, cutting right to the source, disarming her with acute observations. While Amanda’s mother apparently arranged for this little meeting, worried about her daughter after the mysterious and gruesome death of her horse, paying for the privilege of the companionship, though masking it under the pretense of tutoring sessions, preparing her for the college preparatory SAT exams, Amanda sees through all this in a matter of minutes and is much more interested in who Lily really is rather than who she pretends to be. Lily is taken aback by Amanda’s forward nature, but also curious about her abject amorality, describing in grisly detail exactly how she took the life of her crippled horse, putting it out of its misery, but in heinous fashion, feeling no regret or remorse for anything she’s ever done, which Lily finds surprisingly authentic. In this way, the two girls psychologically feel each other out, showing rare insight, rekindling old flames while looking ahead.
With fluid camerawork from Lyle Vincent, exhibiting sweeping Steadicam shots that rove through the empty rooms of a gargantuan mansion, where sound suggestively sets the mood, what’s surprising is just how far under the surface this film digs, each character constantly probing the other, allowing viewers to become familiar with the discussed crimes, taking a devilish turn when Lily inadvertently reveals her hateful feelings for her stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), which Amanda picks up on right away, suggesting there are ways to eliminate his influence on her life, and not get caught, if she’s interested. Initially repelled at the thought, it quickly gains traction in her imagination, utterly disgusted by his vain superiority, his domineering contempt for her, and in particular, the earthshattering noise he generates on his ergometer, with the entire house rumbling and moaning, obsessed with exercising on a rowing machine at all hours of the day and night, which she feels is done with the malicious intent to drive her crazy, where despite the gargantuan size of the estate, it has the claustrophobic feel of being closed in. But it’s only after he decides, no questions asked, to send her to a boarding school for girls with behavioral disorders, as if to punish and humiliate her, having been expelled from her previous school for plagiarism, that she considers Amanda’s idea. While Amanda seems like the perfect choice, free of guilt, but a pending animal cruelty trial makes her a likely suspect. Instead they attempt to blackmail a local drug dealer, Tim (Anton Yelchin), pathetic and over-ambitious, though they’re way out of his league, leaving him exasperated and intimidated by how easily they cornered him. No, if they want the job done, they’ll have to do it themselves, unraveling in the most unexpected fashion. The sheer cold and calculating process is impressive, where Amanda tells Lily at one point, “You cannot hesitate. The only thing worse than being incompetent, or being unkind, or being evil, is being indecisive.” Staring fear right in the face, these are not the most sympathetic young girls, yet the sinister nature of their toxic methods becomes hilariously cold-blooded, where their monstrously evil behavior is so dispassionately over the top, parodying slasher films, as it apparently doesn’t take much to set them off into murderous plots of bloodthirsty revenge, perfectly covering their tracks like Leopold and Loeb in Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948), but unlike the meticulous superiority in the minds of Hitchcock’s killers, these girls simply see themselves as entitled (with the police never suspecting Barbie dolls or Stepford wives, as their perfectly pampered lives don’t fit the profile), where the lavishness of their lifestyle is not lost on them, as the world simply belongs to them. Everyone else is just a secondary character living in it.
The film is also notable for being the last performance of actor Anton Yelchin, the Russian-accented Chekov in Star Trek (2009) who died in a freak accident just 14 days after shooting on this film ended.