2018, R, 92 mins.
Olivia Cooke as Amanda / Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily / Anton Yelchin as Tim / Paul Sparks as Mark / Francie Swift / Kaili Vernoff as Karen
Written and directed by Cory Finley
Cory Finley's ultra black comedy thriller THOROUGHBREDS is about entitled women of wealth and privilege that are so bored and lacking in empathy towards other people around them that they begin to harbor murderous thoughts. And that's what makes it both amusing and frightening in equal measure.
turned director has crafted a debut film that feels like a play
in terms of structure, tone, and pacing, not to mention that he allows
dialogue to propel scenes forward from one intriguing moment to the next.
THOROUGHBREDS isn't visually stiff and static, though, as Finley
demonstrates a keen eye for production design as well
as really knowing how to use a music score to help foster an ever
escalating sensation of dread. There
have been many films before about elitist teen divas that have a taste for
all things amoral, but THOROUGHBREDS manages to maintain a wonderfully
freshening aura of genre originality to it; even when you think you know
exactly what dark and dreary corner it's going to turn down next you're
still left guessing.
The film is also
a triumphant performance showpiece reel for its young actresses in Olivia
Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, both of whom thanklessly carry every scene
here. Cooke plays Amanda, a beautiful young woman that has a mental
screw loose. Her therapist
has been puzzled by her recent violent tendencies - she may or may not
have murdered her own horse - and her emotional detachment from seemingly
everything. By Amanda's own
words, her doctor believes that she has "a perfectly healthy brain.
It just doesn't have any feelings." Because Amanda has a Vulcan-like disposition, she has
essentially cut herself off from most of her friends, including her once
elementary school BFF Lily (Taylor-Joy), who has been politely asked - and paid -
by her mother to spend time with Amanda and tutor her.
scenes between both women have a disquieting level of unease about them:
Amanda coldly tries to push Lily's buttons in hopes of loosening her up,
whereas Lily is trying her best to keep her guard up.
It soon becomes clean to Amanda that Lily is living a life almost
as emotionally stilting as hers in the sense that she has to share her
home with her domineering stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), who's, for lack
of a better phrase, a complete asshole. The more time Amanda and Lily spend together the more they
begin to confide in each other and realize that - despite their obvious
differences - they do share a lot in common (they seem to like black and
white movies and hate authority figures, as well having a mutually shared
penchant for wanting to deal with problems with violence).
Amanda begins to plant thoughts of killing Lily's stepdad in her as
a logical option to dealing with him.
She, of course, immediately dismisses such homicidal choices, but
after she literally can't take any more of the man she decides to take
Amanda up on her offer and the pair begin to plot their dirty deed,
employing the services of a local drug and arms dealer, Tim (Anton Yelchin),
who complicates matters for them in ways they didn't plan.
becomes intoxicating right from the proverbial get-go because of its
remarkably empowered character dynamics between the two lead characters.
Finley does a fine job of quickly establishing everything we need
to know about their fractured relationship with some very economical - and
brutally frank - dialogue exchanges that cut to the heart of what drives
these characters. Lily is
polite, let somewhat uncomfortable in her own skin, whereas Amanda is
headstrong in her outgoing abilities to be forthright and to the point,
regardless of how it may come across.
From their very first scene it appears that their forced friendship
is going to be of the fire on gasoline variety, but they do share the
commonality of being born into opulent wealth and material luxury that
fosters their disdain for those that have power over them.
The battle of wits between the pair is what instantly allows for
the audience buy-in to their story, even when, yes, it goes down some
seriously distasteful paths.
I think that's
precisely why the opening half of THOROUGHBREDS is arguably its finest as
we seen the emotional unthawing of Lily and the slow rebuilding of their
once budding friendship. The
exploratory dialogue passages between them are written with a razor sharp
wit and plain spokenness that's not typically found in most young adult
films, but it's kind of amazing how Finley sets so much up and lays the
groundwork for what's to come by simply having his characters talk to one
another. We learn of Lily's
growing hatred of Mark, who seems hell bent on wanting to destroy her
future college career, as well as making his married life to her mother a
living hell. We also discover
details about how Amanda is able to maintain such a consistent poker faced
disposition in just about any situation, but she has also trained herself
to cry on cue when the situation presents itself.
Amanda is skilled enough to fake emotions with an
authenticity while not actually having any to speak of in normal
circumstances, and that makes her all the more chilling.
Cooke and Taylor-Joy
embrace their characters with a fierce and unwavering commitment that
rarely tips off that they're in a black comedy.
They play things with a deadpan and straight laced clarity that
allows for the macabre nature of their plan to come off as more darkly
amusing. Taylor-Joy has a difficult
performance task of making Lily a well tailored and manicured ice queen
that appears to have it all going for her, but buried underneath that
facade lurks a nervous woman that could break at any moment, which allows
for Lily's journey towards being a creepy killer all the more unnerving.
Cooke's task is tougher, seeing as she has to embody a young woman
that outwardly displays next to no emotion, but her performance isn't one
note or stoic. There's a
dangerous unpredictable edge to Amanda that begs audiences to wonder what
she feels, if anything, and that's a testament to Cooke's subtle and
understated work here. Rounding
off their stellar acting is Yelchin, who plays a much more unethical and
impure character than what we're accustomed to seeing from him, but to
this tough talking, but jittery and defensive hooligan get manipulated by
two girls he initially thinks he'll have his way with gives THOROUGHBREDS a
large part of its comedic edge.
Yelchin died two weeks after shooting this film, which makes
watching his performance here all the more sad and bittersweet; he's
sensational in the film and it would have served as a springboard for more
Finley not only
painstakingly fosters solid turns from his actors, but he also knows how to
get all of the small details in his film absolutely right.
Lily's lakeside home becomes a character in its own right in the
story, seeing as the soulless marbled structure has a clinical and
stifling quality about it that helps fuels the desires of Lily and Amanda
to implant some anarchy to it. Cinematographer
Lyle Vincent's bravura steady cam shots show the characters
navigating themselves through the long and sinewy hallways and rooms of
this home, which gives the film a shadowy sense of foreboding dread, and composer
Erik Friedlander's percussive and oftentimes shrieking music score offers
up a highly conventional, yet hauntingly lyrical sense of unsettling
ambience that compliments the bleak tone of the whole enterprise. The
fact that this is Finley's first feature film as a director is noteworthy;
it's as confident of a rookie turn from a filmmaker as I've seen as of
late on a purely aesthetic level.
I think Finley
makes some novice mistakes, though, it the final act of THOROUGHBREDS,
which tries to shoehorn in a brief flashback to Amanda's aforementioned
altercation with a horse that could have been better left up to the
imagination of viewers to fill in the blanks. There's
also a final scene that's a part of this flashback that, when all is said
and done, doesn't really need to be in the film and could have allowed for
the story to end with a note of nasty ambiguity. Still,
I was so enthralled by he film's whole compelling build-up showing two jaded girls try to make their dark desires become reality
that I was willing to forgive such late breaking plot contrivances. Like a beguiling hodgepodge of HEATHERS meets Hitchcock with a
millennial twist and flavoring, THOROUGHBREDS is a most impressive
cinematic cocktail, to be sure, and Finley is most definitely a name to be
watching out for moving forward.