Sterile. Cerebral. Methodical. Those are the best words to describe Writer and Director Cory Finley‘s Thoroughbreds.
A film centered on two teenagers, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), who converse in dark psychotic fantasies. Thoroughbreds is part noir, part thriller, part dark comedy. It’s like an ice pick running through the side of your neck. It also features an engrossing performance from the late Anton Yelchin, playing Tim: a washed up drug dealer with dreams of making it big.
Inhabiting a wealthy enclave of Connecticut, Lily tutors Amanda, a detached girl who lacks morality. Both were once friends, both once owned horses, and both have drifted apart.
Lily’s home is immaculately manicured and opulent. If she drops a crumb there’s a servant to lick it up. One of the more memorable shots is Amanda’s arrival. Finley can’t help but to use long tracking shots as Amanda explores the cold, vast, and richly furnished home. And who can blame him? It’s a great instance of learning about two characters, with very little being said.
Nevertheless, there’s dirt beneath those soft carpets. Lily is miserable. She has a step father, Mark (Paul Sparks), who she can’t stand. And for good reason. The guy’s a jerk. He treats her mother like a trophy wife (Francie Swift), and loudly rows. Somehow, he’s rich enough (we never find out what Lily’s parents do for a living) to have a rowing machine above the living room, leaving an indelible and annoyingly fat wooshing sound.
And, oh that sound. Finley’s use of sound is Bressonian, as characters become linked to their respective auditory key. Much like Robert Bresson’s films, sound effects become the catalyst for tension. And with every swoosh of a stroke, Lily’s hatred toward her stepfather grows.
However, there is an escape: Amanda. In this role, Cooke nearly makes the film on her own as she delivers one-line barb after one-line barb. Quite honestly, I could watch a film about her character’s therapy sessions and I’d be alright. And in reality, Amanda’s interactions with Lily are therapy sessions, as she bounces questions of flawed morality off her once close friend, slowly prospecting to find her limits. Often her questions reveal more about herself than Lily, but Amanda strikes gold when she suggests that Lily should kill her stepfather.
Now, here’s a little bit of a tangent. Good films. Good thrillers are about the details. When you watch Thoroughbreds, observe how Lily’s hair is handled. Upon Amanda “first” meeting her, she’s prim and proper. The perfect look of a trust-fund baby. Compare it to Amanda, who’s sullen, slovenly, and disheveled. Yet, as the film advances, Lily’s hair progresses from a once uptight bun to becoming more wild and free. It’s a low-key sign of Lily and Amanda’s rekindled friendship, and I personally love little moments like those throughout a film (while you’re watching, I’d also recommend that you look out for Finely’s use of rack focus, and how it demonstrates the off-kilter tension within Lily’s home).
As the two’s murder plot unfurls, they enlist Yelchin’s character, Tim. Every second of Yelchin’s presence on screen is a solemn reminder of his lost talent. He’s wonderful in this character, a guy from the same world as Amanda, but with an open contempt and thirst toward it. Tim wants to be on top, as he works in a retirement home, and later as a valet. He sells drugs to underage kids, and even had sex with one (landing him on a sexual predator watch list). Yet, he’s a poser. Yelchin plays every facet of him to perfection, especially when he enters Amanda’s home to the soaring vocals of “Ave Maria.” He’s quite simply, the best part of this Yorgos Lanthimos type film.
The only issues I had with Thoroughbreds was its lack of intention toward structure. There are chapter title sequences, totaling four in all, that I didn’t think were needed. Also, I didn’t think Amanda’s intentions were clear enough. I know why she’s friends with Lily, and why Amanda needs her on an “emotional” level, but I don’t know why she vacillates between killing Mark and not killing Mark. The lack of motivation detracts from the later micro climax of the film.
Still, Thoroughbreds is strong enough in other areas, the directing, sound mixing, and “morality-play” aspects, to make up for less than clear intentions. And the technical pieces, as with Lily’s house growing darker as the film paces to its grisly conclusion, gives the film a foreboding and psychological quality that is well worth the 90-minute runtime. Cory Finley and Thoroughbreds are definitely names that will seep into the thriller-noir lexicon for years to come.
Photo credit: Slash Film