The teen-centric crime thriller has been a surprisingly popular sub-genre for many years. Films like Heathers, Alpha Dog, Brick and Elephant have all focused on teenage characters involved in criminal activities. Thoroughbreds is one of these films. But writer/director Cory Finley makes his debut stand out by focusing on atmosphere, and the contrasting psychologies of all the main characters. This creates one of the most interesting and bizarre films released in some time.
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) used to be the best friend of Amanda (Olivia Cooke), but they grew apart after the death of Lily’s father. After meeting back up, they eventually reconcile their friendship. Whilst visiting, Amanda notices that Lily’s stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) is emotionally abusive and a road block in Lily’s life and, particularly, her relationship with her mother. Amanda suggests that they kill him. Lily disagrees at first but soon decides to go with it. They try to enlist drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) and things start to go out of control.
What Cory Finley does with the 93-minute runtime is take a simplistic plot and use it to slowly draw out the characterisation and suspense. This combination of short vs slow works in the film’s favour. There’s never a pointless moment, and even parts that appear inconsequential have importance later. Only the epilogue feels a step too far, reducing the impact of an otherwise excellent last five minutes.
The characterisation of the two leads truly shines here. Amanda begins as a borderline sociopath, with an open rejection of all emotions and a tendency for committing violence. Lily seems overemotional and prone to lying, with an early scene showing Amanda confront her with the knowledge that her mother paid Lily to tutor her. However, as the story develops, the more interesting and complex these two become. Amanda is shown to be more sympathetic than you first think, with an empathy hiding behind her actions. Lily becomes more wrathful and uncaring, with actions that make her morally much worse than Amanda.
They are contrasted with the two main male characters. Mark is an uncaring step-parent/husband, but he is emotionally stable and normal. He does not do anything that would warrant being murdered, although Lily views his attempts to send her to a boarding school for troubled girls as warranting death. Tim is an aggressive drug dealer with delusions of grandeur, but he is pathetic and wimpy. His earlier criminal activities make him a tool to Lily and Amanda, so a character who wants to be scary and violent is powerless and pitiable.
Both lead actors are cast well against type here. Anya Taylor-Joy is known for her stoic roles in Split and Morgan. Olivia Cooke is known for her emotional performances in Me, Earl and the Dying Girl and Ready Player One. These acting styles are flipped around and both actresses are convincing. Olivia Cooke is creepy but oddly endearing as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy is sympathetic but also bratty and ultimately sociopathic. Cooke’s deadpan delivery combined with Joy’s emotional range make for an entertaining duo. The late Anton Yelchin is also solid as Tim, taking the role of a low life drug dealer and making him both entertaining and more sympathetic than the other characters.
Cory Finley’s direction shows his expert craft, despite only being a playwright. The small setting and limited cast does not stop the film feeling big and looking incredibly professional. He has a solid grasp of mood and tone, which comes across through Lyle Vincent’s excellent cinematography. The lighting is moody, every camera movement is careful and each frame pulls you in. Many of the scenes play out in long takes that accentuate the bizarre and awkward tone, such as Amanda’s story about euthanising a horse or the first tracking shot through the house. The use of this technique gives the dramatic moments more impact, as shown in a chilling climax that is limited yet horrifying.
The soundtrack by Erik Friedlander is just as off-kilter, sounding like it was composed using tribal instruments, creating palpable tension. The sound design also deserves a lot of praise, the audible quality of certain sounds being well integrated motifs that often rise and drop in levels, adding to the atmosphere.
In conclusion, Thoroughbreds is an interesting experience that will have you thinking well after the credits roll. Cory Finley shows a clear sense of craftmanship and I look forward to whatever he, Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy do next, because this trifecta have made a strange yet mesmerizing film.