Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, star of the 2015 horror film The Witch and co-star of the 2017 thriller Split) is a teenage girl living with her mother and wealthy stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks, from Netflix’ House of Cards), who she hates. Her schoolmate Amanda (Olivia Cooke, Emma from the AMC series Bates Motel, she also costars in this month’s Ready Player One) is a troubled girl, incapable of feeling emotions. Amanda’s mother pays Lily to tutor her daughter and the two become friends. Lily becomes fascinated by Amanda who inspires her unhappy new friend to do something to change her circumstances. That leads them both down a dark path in Thoroughbreds, a surprising and fascinating drama with some darkly comedic elements.
The odd relationship between the two girls is at the center of the story. They both seem like they are holding something back, maybe from themselves or maybe just from the rest of the world. It is like they are isolated inside themselves. This feel is amplified by the style of the film. At least one of the girls is in every scene, and nearly every shot. And most of the story is comprised of conversations between the two that take place at Lily’s house. There are other locations and characters (chiefly, Lily’s stepdad and Tim, a drug dealer played excellently by the late Anton Yelchin), but the focus is very strongly placed on Amanda and Lily. We never get a sense of what is truly going on in the world around them, which is fitting because all they care about is the bubble they exist in.
This is a film about the moral and emotional emptiness of its two lead characters and writer/director Cory Finley bravely introduces that idea right at the top and never looks away from it. Amanda and Lily are so absorbed in their own lives and completely ignorant of the effect they have on those around them. Thoroughbreds stays with them and follows their story regardless of where it leads. There is an immediate sense of something wrong in this film and Finley, in his writing and directing debut, maintains that throughout.
He achieves his atmosphere in three significant ways. The first is through the use of music. The score by Erik Friedlander is ominous in an understated way. He needed to be careful not to overwhelm the action, since the film is slow and very talky. And he never overreaches. The music assists the dialogue in a very effective way.
Another way he does it is through the framing of individual shots by cinematographer Lyle Vincent. There is a heavy use of close-ups and also two-shots of Lily and Amanda. This reinforces that they have isolated themselves emotionally. While they are free to go about as they please, many shots are framed in a way that makes it seem like they have no way out. In a metaphorical sense, they have little choice but to go forward with Amanda’s plan, regardless of how dangerous or wrong it is.
The third way he gets this dark tone is through the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke. Cooke is brilliant as a young woman who understands how to imitate the emotions that others feel, but is incapable of feeling them herself. Her coldness is off-putting to others, but fascinating to Lily. Her directness also generates a lot of the laughs. Taylor-Joy is equally impressive as someone who does not seem to understand herself as much as she thinks she does. While Amanda knows exactly who she is, Lily is really still learning. Unfortunately, she is learning from Amanda, who is not the greatest role model. Both actresses understand what Finley is going for and carry the film perfectly
Thoroughbreds (a tight 86 minutes, minus the end credits) is the first pleasant surprise of 2018. I knew pretty much nothing about it going in and was captivated from start to finish. It is an uncompromising, entertaining and occasionally funny film that announces 28-year old Cory Finley as a newcomer to keep an eye on in the coming years. It is smart and surprising and feels like one of those movies that will get “discovered” in a year or two and become a cult favorite.
4 out of 5
Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily
Olivia Cooke as Amanda
Anton Yelchin as Tim
Paul Sparks as Mark
Written and Directed by Cory Finley