Chilly, sardonic and cruel, Cory Finley’s killer debut Thoroughbreds is a narcissistic response to teen thrillers of the 90s. With ice water coursing through its veins, this shocking first feature from Finley serves as a hellish calling card for ripe new talent in Hollywood. A tongue-in-cheek social commentary about class relations masquerading as an unrelenting character study, this austere New England teenage noir manages the angry ennui of a Bret Easton Ellis novel and the cold-blooded disturbia of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers but moves with the sneaky cadence and unsuspecting footsteps of an entirely different beast.
Split into four chapters, Thoroughbreds defies our expectations of plot machinations and our initial assumptions about these characters – who they are, what demons lurk in their souls, the depths they are willing to go to satisfy themselves and where each will ultimately wind up by the end of this twisted tale – resulting in a dark comedy whose feathers are darker than a raven but that too does not sacrifice an ounce of its uncompromising nature to loose any laughs.
Rather, Thoroughbreds is the kind of movie that you chuckle uncomfortably at precisely because of just how bleak it is. Like the suicidal bits of In Bruges or Patrick Bateman’s obsessive running commentary in American Psycho, we snigger at crossing the threshold of normalcy. Here we have Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a troubled teen with only one friend to speak of and she’s a bit of a robot. Following a feud with that one friend, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) arrives to find Amanda standing in her backyard, shoulders back, eyes open, staring into the tree line, as if impersonating the braindead gaze of a catatonic cow. “What’s she doing?” Lily asks Amanda’s mom. “I don’t know.” But we have a suspicion. She’s simply “off”.
Finley, who wrote as well as directed, never feels the need to feed answers to the audience, relishing in his ability to dangle pieces of information above our head like dripping flesh on a fish hook. As if a selfish teenager, he’s often unwilling to share. From material text message exchanges to momentous plot turns that occur offscreen (with only the ominous sound design sound left to guide us through what’s happening), Thoroughbreds is stylistically economic. For a debut feature, Finley has a lot of faith in his audience.
Very much in control of what is and is not shown, Finley allows the technical elements of his film to shine. The looming unease is amplified by Erik Friedlander’s tempestuous, playful score while Lyle Vincent’s claustrophobic cinematography helps bring a sense of incarcerated intimacy to any given scene, standing in meaningfully stark contrast to the cavernous, hyper-affluent estates that the majority of the action takes place in. If money is supposedly the means to freedom and happiness, that notion is put on its head here – wealth becoming a prism that reflects only greed, suspicion, and white-hot hate.
The relationship between friends Amanda and Lily becomes the Antarctic focal point, the two, each outcast in their own way, testing and trusting each other in ways I’m not sure has ever really materialized onscreen before. We’re always acutely aware of the frays in their bond – the only reason that Lily and Amanda are hanging out again is because Amanda’s mom offered $200 an hour for the social outing – and the two are constantly orbiting in and out of each other’s inner circle.
Although it’s not immediately apparent, Amanda and Lily are two sides of the same coin. Initially, it seems Amanda is robotic. By her own admission, she doesn’t experience human emotions. Though she understands notions of love and hate and joy and sorrow – and has figured out how to trigger the appropriate response so that she blends in with civil society as best she can – Amanda has failed to fake her way into the good graces of her peers or even family. Leagues beyond eventual-cat-lady, Amanda exists on a planet of her own.
Lily – posh, guarded, considerate – appears the polar opposite to Amanda’s brash, full tilt, no-bullshit take on life. But the more that we get to know these characters, the more they bleed into one another and our sympathies for them transform in often unimaginable ways. Oh and did I mention that they plot a murder? Hatching a plan to off Lily’s swift and cruel stepfather (Paul Sparks), the two schoolgirls enlist ne’er-do-well small-time drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) to do the deed while they hatch rock-solid alibis.
The tight-knit cast is excellent across the line; Cooke manages emotional oomph inside a mechanized (but also hilarious) performance; Taylor-Joy swings between sympathetic and utterly heartless, never once breaking a sweat; Sparks is so perfect as an uncharitable twat that you find yourself rooting for his murder; and Yelchin, sweet dearly departed Anton, offers a one-of-a-kind curtain call as the wild-eyed, out-of-his-league loafer Tim.
Like the most effective independent films, Thoroughbreds keeps its aim small and its aspirations high. For a movie about girls killing their stepdad, Thoroughbred smuggles in an abundance of thought-provoking themes about the darkness that dwells inside gated communities; the cross section of wealth, friendship and family a tremendous cauldron that explodes in highly unpredictable manner. With Thoroughbreds, you never quite know where the next scene is going to take you and if the girls truly have it in them to carry out their murderous intent and to his unwavering credit Finley is able to carry that baton of ambiguity all the way across the finish line. Like the stoney-eyed girls at the dead center of the film, this is a dangerous and highly efficient debut.
CONCLUSION: The startling and commanding debut film from Cory Finley ‘Thoroughbreds’ gives a fresh coat of black paint to the teen thriller genre, mixing bleak comedy into one of cinema’s darkest explorations of friendship and isolation. The talented cast, smart direction and killer technical elements are all as sharp as the butcher’s blade.