You wouldn’t know by looking at it, but Thoroughbreds is writer-director Cory Finley’s debut film.
In it, expelled prep school student Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) rekindles an old friendship with Amanda (Olivia Cooke), who admits to Lily that she feels no emotion. Upon observing Lily’s step father Mark (Paul Sparks), who Lily openly despises for the emotional abuse he exerts on her mother, Amanda brings up the notion of murdering him.
The film uses its morbidly comic lens to hone in on concepts of control and ownership in an upper-class, suburban setting. Waves of classism flow on the fringes of the narrative, from the juxtaposition of Lily’s upper crust lifestyle to that of Tim (Anton Yelchin), a lowly drug dealer with high aspirations that is roped into Lily and Amanda’s killing game, to the talk over boarding schools.
This class conversation does not provide much in the way of thematic subtext, but it can be an interesting layer to approach, especially when paired with an examination of the tyrannical patriarch at the center of the plot.
Unfortunately, it is this central plot that, as the film progresses, simply doesn’t hold. As the inevitable becomes closer, the motivations of our protagonist are put into question. There is reason for Lily to want to act on her emotions, but it is hard to buy her actually acting on them.
It is harder to buy because we are not given enough insight into her life. Most of the movie concerns Lily and Amanda: their relationship, their plans, their personalities. Few scenes feature Mark, and fewer feature Lily’s mother. The one scene that is meant to sell us on Lily taking action is an argument between Mark and Lily’s mother, and it is not enough.
This issue can greatly affect the enjoyment of this narrative. So too can the nagging feeling that the screenwriter had a hard time distinguishing between the voices of the two leads. Both Lily and Amanda speak with the same stilted bluntness.
This said, the writing in the film is riveting. The dialogue is sharp and exact, leading to some of the best deadpan dark comedy in recent memory.
The high point of the film, though, is what else is on the soundtrack. The score is unconventional in the best sort of way, aggregating dissonant and atonal sounds that evolve into more unsettling compositions as the film progresses through its chapters.
Finley and cinematographer Lyle Vincent do not slouch on the visuals, either. While most of the film is comprised of medium closeups of the two leads, no scene ever comes off flat or uninteresting.
Wide-angle lenses are used to good effect when depicting the immensity of the mansion that Lily lives in. They play with framing, shifting things like lead space to make shots more uncomfortable. There is a sense of depth or texture to most shots, and there is a deliberateness to the editing. The lighting is exquisite. The production design is lavish.
All of this visual energy in a film that restrains itself in key visual areas. This may be the film’s strongest card. Finley is keen on what the audience expects to see in given scenes, and then is coy about what he decides to show instead.
The performances from Taylor-Joy and Cooke are both enticing. Their characters do tend to blend into one voice that just happens to be talking to itself, but both actresses take on the stilted affectation of their characters while managing to avoid watering down the characters as a result.
Yelchin, too, gives a strong performance in what is unfortunately his last. His character is not so central to the plot, and thus he is not given much to do. Nevertheless, when he is on screen it is hard not to be drawn in as he sells his character’s deluded fantasies about his potential.
Thoroughbreds reads mainly like a chamber play. Much of the film takes place inside this mansion. All the same, it is a film with a layered script, a visual verve, and a perfectly disconcerting soundtrack that give it a cinematic quality. The nagging issues with character and plotting keep it from being on the same level as the films that it is being most compared to—Heathers and American Psycho. Still, it is a tight little dark comedy with a lot to enjoy.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)