3/08/2018

Review: 'Thoroughbreds', Anya Taylor-Joy & Olivia Cooke Lead A Killer Dark Comedy


A thoroughbred is a creature of such exquisite breeding that they are beyond reproach. Something foul must have creeped into the gene pool and infected the murderous teens at the heart of Cory Finley's directorial debut, Thoroughbreds, because they are seriously messed up. A film full of twisted, despicable characters and savage wit, Finley doesn't dare ask us to sympathize with any of them. Smartly, he bursts that bubble pretty early on, and by letting these privileged, overly mannered monsters run rampant our expectations for them are subverted enough that we begin to care how they turn out. I felt the same way about the devilish duo in Funny Games, characters that Thoroughbreds' murderous antagonists share a lot in common with.


Rising stars Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are Amanda and Lily respectively, two childhood friends who grew up in the posh luxury of the Connecticut suburbs. Long estranged, they try to rekindle their dormant friendship when Amanda returns to town a total pariah after a series of disturbing events, including an opening scene where she seems to be preparing to butcher her horse, the oft-mentioned Honeymooner. Still outwardly odd and distant, willingly offering that she doesn't "have any feelings", Amanda is bluntly aware that her mother paid Lily to be friends with her again, even though Lily won't admit to it. Not at first, anyway. Lily has been playing the polite goody two-shoes for so long that she's a pressure cooker ready to burst.


The most fascinating aspect of Finley's script is the shifting power structure between the girls.  Amanda's blunt honesty and reputation for violence draws something ugly out of Lily, but really it's just her natural, wicked self. Together they cook up a nasty scheme to murder Lily's stepfather (Paul Sparks), a douchebag who walks around indoors in goofy sunglasses and uses the workout machine at al hours of the day and night. The rumbling of his workouts adds an ominous note to the sparse, chilling score, especially in a tense latter scene.


Finley isn't keen on exploring why Amanda and Lily are who they are. There's no deep commentary on their privileged upbringing turning them into disaffected killers. We're left to consider that, hey, maybe they're just naturally sociopathic, with no regard for the lives of others regardless of their social class. Anton Yelchin, in the late actor's final screen performance, plays Tim, a petty drug dealer with big aspirations and minimum wage realities. Blackmailed into helping with the murder, Tim is just collateral damage in the overall scheme of things. While their haggling over the murder's details is the one point when the movie drags (it's always at a very deliberate pace), Tim is important for putting into context just how bad Amanda and Lily really are. They're going to be fine no matter what happens; but somebody like Tim, with no resources and nobody to come help him, will be screwed for life. Do they care? Nah, not really. It's just not in their nature.


With The Witch, Split, and Bates Motel under their belts, Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke are no strangers to genre at this point. They've still never played characters quite like Lily and Amanda, though. Lily is the outwardly emotive one, and Taylor-Joy expresses it in self-doubt that evolves into a dangerous level of confidence. Cooke is the polar opposite, and while her character is referred to as "the crazy one", there's just enough vulnerability shown to make you wonder what's really going on inside Amanda's head. Meanwhile, their performances are matched by Finley's skillful, patient hand at the camera. He's smart enough to keep the focus on his two brilliant young stars and their unhinged performances, although he occasionally gives us an offbeat image or two. A scene where Amanda plays chess on a life size game board is a particular highlight, and had me thinking of those backyard cricket matches in Heathers


Funny Games, Heathers...while it may seem crazy to put Thoroughbreds in the same sentence as those classic movies about killer teens, they explore many of the same themes just from different angles, with similarly snarky banter. The film isn't overly concerned about the high school social scene, but peer pressure? Toxic friendships? Entitlement? Finley's conclusion doesn't wrap up his various ideas in a way that truly grips, but Thoroughbreds more than leaves an impression, it'll have you hoping to see these troublemakers reunited on the big screen.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5