Published on June 12th, 2018 | by Thomas Weinmaster0
Thoroughbreds is much more than the teen romp it may appear to be on the surface. It’s funny, satirical, thrilling, and dream-like in different moments.
An element of darkness exists inside all of us; it’s been said a thousand times by a thousand poets. Some of us learn to coexist with it, some try to trample it down, and others simply cannot control it. Thoroughbreds, the debut film from writer/director Cory Finley, shows us the encroaching void where we least expect it: among two intelligent teenage girls firmly planted in society’s top rung. What follows is an exploration of the inky blackness of the human soul, along with the comedic surreality of wealthy life (and death).
Lily Reynolds (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a teenager living with her mother and stepfather, the three of them occupying a cavernous mansion in an ultra-rich New England community. She has all the hallmarks of a conscientious, intelligent young woman with a bright future. Her estranged friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke) re-enters her life unexpectedly as a tutoring student, in the hopes that Lily can help improve her grades. Memories of horseback riding together are long gone, as the two grew apart after the death of Lily’s father. Emotionally damaged Amanda has since been in trouble with the law and feels no emotion or empathy toward other human beings. She is a willing pariah, while Lily is uptight and obsessed with appearances.
The pair reforms their friendship, initially out of morbid curiosity by both parties, and we find that beneath Lily’s well-adjusted exterior lies a deeply disturbed individual, who feels unfairly persecuted by her overbearing stepfather Mark. Lily recounts her sorrows to Amanda, who provides a simple solution: kill Mark. Though initially repulsed by the idea, Lily quickly warms to it, and they enlist the help of a local deadbeat (Anton Yelchin) to eliminate him.
For playwright Cory Finley, this is the first time being involved in any movie, let alone behind the camera, but you wouldn’t know it. The story comes together masterfully, allowing its talented cast to flex their muscles. He is extremely careful not to take a principled standing on the actions of our characters, which is interesting. Some have been citing the film’s moral ambiguity as a flaw, though I don’t see it that way, and I believe it represents a firm criticism of social elites. Finley goes to great lengths to explore the boredom and monotony of wealth, and the effect it has on the two adolescent leads. There is also a very ethereal dreamlike quality that coats much of the film. It’s teetering on the edge of David Lynch territory, despite being relatively linear, and I think it works wonderfully
Unsurprisingly considering the above, the cinematography is outstanding. The colour palette is mostly cold (save for a couple moments), reflecting the existence of our protagonists in their gilded prison. Static, soundless shots allow the echoes of the monstrous houses to unnerve us, and long smooth takes winding down deserted corridors let the emptiness and unreality of the lifestyle sink in. The camera comes alive and jolts us sporadically, intentionally disorienting us even further in this absurd world.
The film is wonderful visually, but it’s the story and interactions that steal the show. At times I was left wondering if the dialogue was ad-libbed or scripted. With a background in stage writing, it’s difficult to tell how Finley planned it, but the result is magnificent. I was surprised by the repartee between the two characters, which is entertaining and doesn’t seem forced or fake. The whole proceeding is surprisingly funny, though obviously in a dark and twisted way. Still, it provokes a few wicked laughs.
The music chosen for the film is almost primal, perhaps echoing the primitive goal of our main characters. It reminds me of the music in 2014’s Birdman, with percussive beats and squeaky strings adding to the sense of the surreal. One particularly memorable song called ‘Sila’ by A Tribe Called Red features Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and I recommend listening to it. It’s evocative of the entire audial experience. There are also conventional musical choices (perhaps used ironically) like an appearance of Ave Maria as Tim wanders through Lily’s home, bewildered by the show of wealth.
The performances in Thoroughbreds are spectacular. This is a small cast, but each actor is individually worthy of praise. The emotional and psychological arcs of the two main characters are incredible to behold, and both Cooke and Taylor-Joy completely sink into their roles. Anya Taylor-Joy is even more impressive here than she was in The Witch, showing her range from mousy intellectual to hard-nosed sociopath. I had never seen Cooke in a film before, but her ability ensures I will seek out her work in the future. It may seem easy to play an emotionally muted teenager, but she fills the role with so many wonderful quirks and eccentricities, it’s impossible to ignore her craftsmanship. Lastly, Anton Yelchin gives us an incredibly humorous yet humanistic lowlife drug dealer we can’t help but root for. His constant machinations about how he will overcome the hand life has dealt him, and his incredulousness at the boldness of the girls give the audience one sympathetic character to side with. It’s a rough reminder of what could have been for a talented young actor gone far too soon.
It’s fair to say that I loved Thoroughbreds. Rookie director Finley took a premise that could easily be monotonous and cliched and made it into a stylish exploration of the darkest corners of the teenage psyche. The moral ambiguity of the whole affair allows the audience to enjoy the experience without feeling preached at (not-so-subtle one-percenter-bashing notwithstanding), and the performances elevate it beyond its simplicity. Elements of teenage comedy, horror, thriller, and fever dream blend together beautifully, and the music keeps the pulse rate up even when the visuals are intentionally sedate. It’s wonderful to see a talented new director on the scene, paired with two incredible young actors sure to be lighting up the screen for a long time. So go ahead and look down into the darkness. You won’t regret it. Just be careful not to fall in.