Film Review: Thoroughbreds

Girls go bad in this intelligent black comedy.
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A darkly good time is Thoroughbreds, the confident feature debut from playwright Cory Finley. The film has drawn comparisons to American Psycho and Heathers, which are both apt parallels, but the real fun of the movie is its intelligent, deadpan distinctiveness. Lead actresses Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) and, in particular, Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”) are perfectly cast as the rich Connecticut teens whose “good breeding” goes horribly “bad.” Thoroughbreds is a wonderful example of the sparks that can fly when a great script is brought to life by the right cast.

Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) used to be friends during their halcyon days of middle school, but they’ve grown apart in recent years. It seems Lily has been attending a posh boarding school and working a coveted internship in finance, while Amanda has been acting…troubled. See, Amanda lacks the ability to feel. So she tells Lily on a play-date of sorts that has been arranged by Amanda’s mother. Amanda has gotten by in the world by mimicking the behavior of other people. “This doesn’t make me a bad person,” she insists. “It just means I have to work a little harder than everyone else.” Lily is taken aback by this confession, but when Amanda’s frankness forces her to speak candidly in her turn (clearly not something she does very often), she begins to warm to her former friend. Certainly it helps to have someone else bear witness to the jerky conduct of her stepfather, Mark (a terrific Paul Sparks). And if Mark is annoyed by Amanda’s presence, so much the better.

One night, in typical feeling-less fashion, Amanda casually floats the idea of murdering Mark. After an initial period of resistance that is textbook the-lady-doth-protest-too-much, Lily agrees. They decide to enlist the services of a loser drug dealer (the late, great Anton Yelchin) to aid them in their plot. As their plan unfolds, assumptions of just who is “good” and who is “bad,” who is moral and who is psycho, entertainingly and unnervingly shift.

Finley’s dialogue is laugh-out-loud sharp, his plotting careful and unhurried, and his choice of music, working with composer Erik Friedlander, spot-on. The filmmakers opt for a score that is partly suspenseful, with its high-pitched whines and squeals, and partly jungle-feverish, with booming drums and cacophonously overlapping sounds. There’s great humor in the style of the filmmaking, as the movements of the girls through their beautifully decorated houses are set to this feral music. It’s as if their interiority is booming out at us without the need for voiceover.

Which is why it’s a bit frustrating when, at the end of the film, Amanda writes a letter in which, through voiceover, she explains some of the film’s themes. Horses in various scenes and images recur throughout the movie. Given the circumstances, the animalism of the music and the dramatic climax, the film ably conveys why these animals are important and how they’re functioning within the narrative. There may be some ambiguity, but when Amanda explains it all outright while staring at a poster of a horse, the reaction is not the relief of, Oh, good, now I understand, but rather the disappointment of, Don’t tell us what you’ve already shown!

Happily, though, this moment of over-sharing is anomalous in a film that is otherwise nicely restrained in its acidity, delightfully caustic without feeling mean-spirited, nihilistic or cynical. A good deal of the credit must go to Cooke, whose “unfeeling” character could have easily sounded robotic or too detached for us to follow. This is her film, though both Taylor-Joy, as an ice princess who cracks, and Yelchin, as a sensitive doofus, offer the considerable strength of their performances. The film is dedicated to Yelchin, who passed away in 2016. Thoroughbreds is one of the last films he made, and is both a reason to lament what has been lost and to celebrate what was.

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