By: Steve Pulaski
On top of many other things, Thoroughbreds suggests that a disaffected youth is better by far than a wise and productive old age.
A film so creative and strange it's surprising A24 didn't call dibs the instant it premiered at Sundance last year, Cory Finley's directorial debut is a slickly made production. Initially conceived by Finley as a stageplay until it found itself reconceptualized as a work fit for the big-screen, it's a film I personally would've loved to see play out on-stage. The claustrophobic elements in Finley's film, from the lavish mansion setting that serves as the primary location, complete with spotless furniture and expensive decor complimenting the vapidity of this particular culture, would've been captivating to see in-person. Yet by housing a nasty, morally bankrupt story of youth in a gigantic palace, Finley allows these contrasting elements to culminate into a well-made burst of originality.
The film begins with the emotionally distant Amanda (Olivia Cooke) entering the aforementioned mansion where her childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives with her mostly absent mother (Francie Smith) and irksome stepfather (Paul Sparks). After being caught slaughtering the family's valuable thoroughbred horse, Amanda is sent to Lily's home to be tutored by her straight-A childhood friend with hopes that some social interaction will cure her apathy.
But Amanda's nonexistent emotional state is ostensibly permanent. She walks around with a sullen expression that looks as if she's had a year's worth of disappointing sex, and speaks in monotone without so much as an inflection. Lily is more sensitive, especially with the recent difficulties she's experienced in school culminating in many a passive-aggressive exchange with her stepfather. When Lily vents to Amanda, her only confidant, about her contempt for him, Amanda proposes a simple and logical solution. "Have you ever thought about killing him?," she bluntly questions. Lily and Amanda then outsource a petty drug dealer (Anton Yelchin in his final film) to do their dirty-work and thus begins their attempt to pull off their criminal plot.
Thoroughbreds is the antithetical response to America's fascination with murderers, an interest that has spawned the likes of documentaries and around-the-clock news coverage of anchors, psychologists, and social scientists desperately clawing at shreds of information to form an idea as to how someone could shoot kindergartners or random passersby. The obvious question behind every murderer is "why?" How could they snap and take away another person's life? Because these questions so prolifically dominate the discourse of how we try and get to the bottom of a murderer's motive, Thoroughbreds makes itself noteworthy in its caustic disregard for justifications. Finley has no qualms about portraying Amanda as someone seriously lacking empathy, and Lily as an easily swayed accessory greatly fueled by the empathy that clouds her mind. If Thoroughbreds has anything to say about the empathy we feel, it's that it's a distraction; a totally needless feeling in the human mind.
I cannot go much further without praising the performances of the two leads, who do a commendable job of bringing the affectless environment of Finley's brainchild to life. As stated, Olivia Cooke cleanses herself of any and all emotion. One of her best moments comes when Amanda informs Lily of "the technique" one can employ in order to make themselves cry on the spot. It starts with several quick and sudden gulps, as if you're choking yourself (these gulps, among other casually made noises, emphasized by precise sound editing), which effectively triggers the signal in your brain to produce tears. It's an integral scene early in the film because it shows the way Amanda can seduce Lily into rationally accepting the idea that murdering her stepfather is the most direct way to handle their friction. From then on, we can see Anya Taylor-Joy and her character methodically change and become entranced by the ways of her friend. With solid performances in The Witch, Split, and now Thoroughbreds under her belt, at only 21-years-old, Taylor-Joy is rapidly rising as one of the most exciting young actors working today. Also giving a tremendous performance of subtle, deadpan wit is Anton Yelchin, in a role that reminds us what a talent he was and how a terrible freak accident claimed him far too soon, yet still with a uniformly solid body of work already formed.
Finley's film is at its best when it finds Cooke and Taylor-Joy working off of one another in a way that forms what I call "anti-chemistry;" two characters with separate personalities remaining true to themselves without ever getting too intimate with one another. In the first act, scenes exist that try to take us a few too many places by waywardly following Lily have Thoroughbreds in search of context and purpose too early. These stumbles curiously come after Finley has already set-up Amanda and Lily's relationship by way of stilted conversation that takes place over their first couple tutoring sessions. At 90 minutes, time is fleeting, so it's a good thing the film gets its more aimless musings out of the way quickly in order for the claustrophobic drama between the two women to find a cold, clinical rhythm to match the entrapping ambiance.
Thoroughbreds is less a commentary on the disaffection of spoiled rotten youth and more a meditation on how the worst can be brought out of those same individuals so easily. I've long-thought, perhaps morbidly, that many teenagers are only a few stern parental lectures, rejections, bad grades, and empty promises away from doing something potentially catastrophic to themselves and others, and Finley's debut agrees with that idea. The film's staunch commitment to personifying that troubling thought culminates through one of Amanda's most memorable lines of dialog. “You cannot hesitate," she tells Lily when she seems only to want to carry out the murder-plot herself in a fit of emotional impulse. "The only thing worse than being incompetent, or being unkind, or being evil, is being indecisive.” Lacking self-awareness will do it too.