Director: Cory Finley
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Kaili Vernoff
Teenage angst is a well-used trope in film. Countless movies have their plots based on it, whether obviously or cryptically. And then sometimes a film comes along that takes that angst to absurd levels that seem unrealistic, but chances are a quick Google search will reveal the darker side of bored/psychotic teens and render that film unbearably close to reality. Thoroughbreds is just that kind of film – shocking, perhaps unbelievable, but not totally unlikely, pulling on so much more than just the standard ‘angst’, but also the outside influences and mental instability that’s not always apparent. Whilst being quite a stylish film, interestingly shot, scored and admirably performed, does it provide the substance that a psychological thriller such as this needs in order to succeed, or is it just another lame horse in the echelons of films based on the intricate and cantankerous psychology of teenagers?
The film follows two main protagonists through their toxic yet strangely balanced friendship: sociopath Amanda (Cooke) and the proper yet shrewd Lily (Taylor-Joy). After euthanising her thoroughbred horse and spending some time in a correctional facility, Amanda is tutored by her ex-childhood friend Lily, a paid arrangement by Amanda’s mother (Vernoff). After a short time they rekindle their friendship and bond over Lily’s dislike of her step-father, Mark (Sparks). Amanda and Lily begin to plot Mark’s murder after he decides Lily will attend a boarding school further away than she’d like. Together they rope in local drug-dealer Tim (Yelchin) to carry out the murder, offering him $100,000 for his trouble. When things don’t quite go to plan, Lily takes matters fully into her own hands.
Initially both characters appear to be completely different in personality, and that doesn’t necessarily change, but it becomes obvious that they see in each other what they lack in themselves. Through his writing, Cory Finley explores the psyches of one girl that feels the desire to kill, the other girl that possesses the ability to kill, and how they are brought together worryingly quickly and easily to form a coherent plan. Amanda is a high-functioning sociopath; she is aware of her inability to emote or empathise in any way and she makes a conscious effort to humanise herself. Lily, on the other hand, is the standard well-to-do upper class young lady, who covers up her own inner demons and homicidal tendencies by coming across as a happy, caring and kind person. Both characters are pretending to be something they’re not, and they very quickly become a sort of yin to the other’s yang, creating the perfect storm of turmoil and calm that precedes murder.
The overarching plot isn’t something that on its own would particularly draw an audience in: spoilt teen wants step-father out of the picture so she can continue to live her life the way she wants, recruiting a vulnerable friend to help her out. It wades in the shallow end of the context pool and doesn’t exactly provide a strong M.O for Lily, or Amanda for that matter. It smacks of one of those teen horror/thrillers that movie studios churn out ten-a-penny. But it’s the characterisation of Amanda and Lily and how they play off one another that gives the plot its panache. That and the respective performances.
Cooke reviewed generally well in her breakout role as Rachel in 2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Thoroughbreds is far more her calibre than her recent weaker role in Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Cooke essentially has to act without acting, portraying someone who feels nothing, which generally goes against everything an actor is trained for, and she does a wonderful job of it, deadpanning to great success. Taylor-Joy continues to perform beyond her years, taking us on Lily’s downward spiral gradually and effectively. Together their chemistry onscreen is consuming and makes for a pleasurably uncomfortable experience, something that is reflected in Erik Friedlander’s score that is often less a score than ambient distorted sound, perfect for reflecting what comes to be Lily’s inner madness and Amanda’s emptiness. Special mention must be given to Anton Yelchin and his final performance before his untimely passing, just fourteen days after wrapping his scenes. His turn as a drug-addled twenty-something is eccentrically wonderful yet overwhelmingly sad. When he first appears onscreen it’s difficult not to think about him as the very much missed Anton rather than Tim, but as is a testament to Yelchin’s ability as an actor, that soon fades behind an engaging and entertaining performance as a character that, though he boasts he’ll be at the top of his drug-dealing game in five-to-ten years, likely comes from the same background as Amanda and Lily (as Amanda mentions she knows he’s from Westchester, a place that’s home to many wealthy people, and Tim mentions at one point that he still lives with his dad). As final performances go, Yelchin goes out on a high.
Visually the entire production is enticing. You wouldn’t know that this was Finley’s first foray into directing, let alone film direction. One particular scene that stands out is when Amanda and Lily are in the garden and Amanda is telling Lily how and why she killed her horse (all very logical and emotionless, as befits the character). Whilst Amanda recounts the story in great detail, she moves stone chess pieces around on a giant chess board. The way this is done, interspersed with flashbacks to the killing of the horse and close-ups of Lily’s sunglass-covered yet ever-concerned face, sums up the way the film is shot as a whole: smoothly and thoughtfully, every scene and the way it’s photographed counting for something (you can’t have chess in a scene, especially so blatantly, without it meaning something toward the story, whether that be to do with playing games, pieces moving and/or the ‘horse’ theme with the use of the knight piece).
In his directorial debut, Finley has produced something that, while not entirely original in concept and far from being its own thoroughbred, pulls from numerous influences that amalgamate into a modern hybrid of a film: from the plot points of Shakespeare to the direction of Kubrick; the tension of Psycho to the warped mentality of American Psycho; the dangerous game-playing privileged teens of Cruel Intentions to the youthful homicidal plot of Hard Candy; its DNA is structurally varied, and as varied as its influences and predecessors are, they reflect the Thoroughbreds story as a whole, which is in complete contrast to its title. The ending is perhaps not entirely worth the build-up, as it plateaus somewhat in the last fifteen minutes, but it’s better than taking a downward spiral and being a disappointment, and for a debut you can’t really ask for much more than that. Finley has proven himself one to watch, along with the ever-growing careers of Cooke and Taylor-Joy, and this is certainly a production for the trio, and the entire cast and crew, to be proud of.