Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Thoroughbreds.
Most of Thoroughbreds, Cory Finley's sharp and dark directorial debut, takes place in a lavish yet oppressive Connecticut mansion. It's a beautiful property, well-appointed and expensive— but utterly devoid of any warmth.
That house, almost a character in its own right, is the ideal setting for a film that centers around two young women swathed in privilege, and groomed to perfection, but whose complete indifference and disaffection to anyone but each other mirrors the stale environment around them.
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the kind of girl who plans and attends every school social function but quietly cries herself to sleep at night. She's seething with repressed rage — mainly directed at her stepfather (Paul Sparks), the owner of the aforementioned mansion who announces he's sending her to a boarding school for delinquent young women after she was caught plagiarizing an essay (under pressure to maintain that perfect GPA) — but can barely admit it to herself, so imprisoned is she inside the boundaries of polite society. The only crack in that dainty facade comes courtesy of a bejeweled wasp clasp she wears around her neck — elegant, but deadly.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is the more overtly troubled of the pair. Awaiting trial for animal cruelty after she tried to mercy kill her prize horse (she used a blunt knife to slice through its neck), she's a sociopath and an expert in faking nonexistent feelings. (In one memorable scene, she teaches Lily "the technique" used by Old Hollywood actresses to cry on command, an exercise that requires such short, rapid breaths that both girls nearly choke in the pursuit of visible emotion.)
Estranged childhood friends, the two reconnect under the guise of Lily accepting to tutor Amanda, a benevolent gesture that is quickly debunked. Amanda, who's been reading her mother's emails, knows that she's paying Lily to spend time with her. Caught in a lie (the first of many she's told about her perfect life), Lily lets loose and actually expresses her real feelings, for once. A new friendship is born.
Individually, these two young women are insufferable. Bored and suffering from rich white female priveleg-itis, they have distinctly first-world problems. But together, they're perversely charming. Cooke speaks in constant deadpan, but her comedic timing is spot on, and the way she conveys a thirst for human connection despite Amanda's lack of emotions turns what could been an empty shell into a character with plunging depths. Taylor-Joy, on the other hand, could teach a masterclass in expressive acting. Her huge eyes are compelling, and she puts them to good use. The finishing touch is Finley's dialogue, which crackles with delightful barbs that manage to portray the love/hate relationship between teenage girls without veering into catty stereotypes.
When the two start plotting the murder of Lily's stepfather, Mark — the kind of rich guy that keeps samurai swords above his desk, overlooking the framed photograph of that time he went lion-hunting in Africa — they enlist help from local drug-dealer and aspiring entrepreneur (Anton Yelchin) to do their dirty work for them. This was Yelchin's final role before his tragic death in June 2016, and it's a bittersweet one: his time onscreen is limited but memorable, a reminder of an impressive talent that never quite got the chance to shine.
Finley originally wrote Thoroughbreds as a stage play, and that comes through in the claustrophobic, contained shots and minimal locations. Erik Friedlander's score enhances the overall ominous atmosphere, as does Finley's use of ambient noise: Mark's constant presence in the house is hinted at through the slow drone of his rowing machine, which he uses at all hours of the day or night, and reiterating the oppressive nature of their relationship. Every crack of the floorboard is magnified as Amanda explores her friend's huge house, as if to fill the chilly silence.
Thoroughbreds comes at an interesting moment, and one in which showrunners and filmmakers seem particularly fascinated by the inner lives and relationships of sociopathic and murderous teenagers. Netflix's The End Of The F***ing World, released in January, took us on a journey with two amoral teenagers who go on a crime spree after running away from home. In fact, Amanda's description of her lack of feeling mirrors Alex Lawther's similar analysis as James in the show, while the impulsive way she casually suggests a murder is more in line with Jessica Braden's Alyssa. A similar dynamic plays out in Max Winkler's upcoming movie Flower, which stars Zoey Deutsch as a promiscuous teenager who befriends her stepbrother just released from rehab.
The judiciousness of glamorizing that kind of calculated teen violence, especially in a reality where the end result looks a lot more like the recent high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, than a cool crime caper, is definitely a question that will be raised as more of these stories find their way onscreen. What's more, it's worth noting that all the projects mentioned above star all-white casts — in Hollywood, a movie about murderous Black teens isn't stylish; it's scary.
Still, there's something disquieting, but also very freeing, about seeing young women simply stop being polite, and instead give into their worst impulses. But then again, men have been doing that for years. We just have a name for it: "Bad boys." They're the rebels we love to love, whose contempt for the rules is matched only by their terrible attitude. Bad girls, on the other hand, aren't lovable heroes just a hug away from redemption. They're dangerous; unpredictable forces to be tamed, subdued, controlled.
Thoroughbreds is a look at what happens when the bad girls run the show. And it's kind of glorious to behold.
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