Early on in Cory Finley’s dark comedic thriller Thoroughbreds, upper-class teens Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) sit curled up on the couch, watching a classic film on TV. “That’s the worst crying I’ve ever seen,” Amanda says flatly, as a black-and-white blonde dabs a handkerchief at her eyes. Lily disagrees, and to demonstrate “the technique,” Amanda lets her breath become shallow and allows tears to stream down her cheeks. When Lily insists on being shown how to do the same, Amanda instructs her to force her body into distress. “It’s like you’re choking yourself,” she says effortlessly, as if there’s nothing to it.
A tightly edited and bracing film, Thoroughbreds itself often feels effortless. The story centers on the relationship of two estranged teenagers who grow close once more as they begin to speak honestly about identity, morality, and death. Their rekindled friendship is abruptly threatened when Amanda offhandedly mentions killing Lily’s stepfather, but the offer needles its way into Lily’s brain to the point of obsession, and they soon gravitate towards each other yet again.
Cooke (Bates Motel) has the unenviable task of portraying a self-proclaimed sociopath, and while her dialogue is completely devoid of feeling or intonation, her performance remains mesmerizing. On a sunny afternoon, Amanda details the lengthy murder of her prize-winning horse, Honeymooner, as Lily hides her reaction behind pricey sunglasses. Amanda picks up giant stone chess pieces and drags them across a marble board, nonchalantly playing a game against herself as she describes drugging, paralyzing, and slitting her horse’s neck. Her voice is lifeless, and her expression reads as disinterested at best, but her monologue is hypnotic nonetheless.
With Cooke as a lymphatic foil, Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) plays opposite her with an impressive range. At first, Lily is bewildered by the upsetting things her old friend spouts, but she quickly drops the perky act of perfection that was groomed into her by her parents. Relieved to talk bluntly to Amanda — and have a pithy response handed immediately back — Lily continues to shed her glossy exterior and tap into a well of grief and anger that began with her father’s death, and reignited when her mother remarried a douchebag named Mark (portrayed with cutting animosity by Paul Sparks). The result sees her backpedal so far from her former self that she not only mirrors Amanda, but could take that young woman’s place as the reigning sociopath of suburban Connecticut.
Unfortunately, one element that feels lacking is the limited inclusion of Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Odd Thomas, Like Crazy) in his last released performance following his sudden death in July 2016. Portraying a drug dealing low-life named Tim, Yelchin is in top form, and manages to produce a complex mixture of disgust, alarm, and sympathy in the fifteen or so minutes of screen time he shares with the female leads. While Thoroughbreds is not an outright comedy, the scenes featuring Taylor-Joy, Cooke, and Yelchin lead to the most laughs, and shine with chemistry. Sadly, his death bears an unavoidable weight on this film, one can’t help but wish he had been utilized more.
One of the more notable aspects of Thoroughbreds is its exceptional sound mixing and design. The film is hurried along by a compelling score from composer Erik Friedlander, who combines cello, piano, and percussion to unsettling ends. Jarring tones lurking underneath shots of luxury and beauty keep the viewer on edge throughout the entirety. It’s a score more at home in a Victorian horror film, but nevertheless manages to match Thoroughbreds’ more sinister undertones to a thrilling degree.
The soundtrack weaves in and out in brief snippets throughout the film, relying on anachronistic humor as discussion of murder fades into the gleeful tones of King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” and swerving into heart-pounding paranoia as Lily wanders on the edges of a party to A Tribe Called Red’s throaty, feverish “Sila.” Even simple sound effects produce a measure of anxiety, like the nauseating thrum of Mark’s indoor rowing machine cranking away above Lily’s head.
Interestingly, Thoroughbreds was originally conceived as a stage play, and it often reads that way with its sparse list of settings, sharp dialogue, and small, dynamic cast. The knowledge that this could have easily been performed on stage speaks not only to Finley’s strength as a writer, but also the visual skills he’s still refining as a director. Nonetheless, it is incredibly impressive as a first effort, and remarkable projects no doubt await Finley, Cooke, and Taylor-Joy in the future.