A film review by Craig J. Koban April 5, 2018

THOROUGHBREDS jjj
   

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.  

The playwright 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.   

 

 

The initial 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. 

THOROUGHBREDS 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 witness 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 to come.   

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.

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