Thoroughbreds appears to have come out of nowhere, with little in the way of advance publicity. The truth is this barbed black comedy has been sitting on a shelf for a year, out of respect to co-star Anton Yelchin – better known as Chekhov in the Star Trek films – who tragically died in a freak car accident in 2016. It’s desperately sad watching his last performance, particularly when he’s so brilliant, playing a character a million miles removed from Enterprise crewmember, Pavel Chekhov. But Thoroughbreds is too good to disappear into DVD obscurity; dedicated to Yelchin, it stands as an impressive memorial to his talent.
Set in upstate New York, it’s the story of two pampered teens, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), both of whom are damaged in different ways. Amanda has a police record after euthanizing her injured horse with a knife, an act of kindness, which turned into butchery when the animal inconveniently refused to die. Amanda arrives at the home of the popular and academically inclined Lily; the pair had previously been best friends but grew apart after the death of Lily’s father. They meet under the pretence of hanging out, and having a casual tutoring session – though it’s later revealed that Amanda’s mother paid Lily to socialize with her daughter.
Amanda claims to be too numb to feel much of anything; her doctor can’t decide if she’s depressed or has Borderline Personality Disorder. This hasn’t stopped her from mastering the art of fake tears, a technique she passes on to Lily, one that opens up a useful skill set when Lily wants to manipulate her passive Stepford mother (Francie Swift.)
Thoroughbreds is sometimes an uncomfortable watch, a lot of unease arising in the shape of Lily’s fitness-obsessed, narcissistic step-father Mark (Paul Sparks, who played a similar character in the HBO series The Night Of). His presence is felt throughout, often heard through the walls of their antiseptic show home, pounding away on a rowing machine; the noise bores into Lily’s heart like a frozen bit drill. Mark believes his stepdaughter to have behavioural issues and, against her will, enrols her in a college for special-needs students – the tipping point for the nightmare that follows.
Amanda floats the idea of killing Mark, and Lily is malleable enough to go along with this half-baked plan; the pair blackmail ambitious but pathetic local drug dealer Tim (Yelchin) into helping them. For a while Thoroughbreds seems like it’s going to be a thriller without a murder, in the same way David Mamet’s American Buffalo is a heist movie missing a crime. Amanda and Lily’s impulsive, inconsistent motivations give the film a compulsive edge.
It’s heartening to see Oldham girl Olivia Cooke – still only 24 – ascending the Hollywood ranks. Six years ago, Cooke was acting in cosy BBC drama, The Ghosts of Crickley Hall, but got noticed by American casting directors, and moved into Bates Motel almost immediately. Now she’s racking up big-screen projects, appearing in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and co-starring with Oscar Isaac and Annette Benning in the upcoming Life Itself. As Amanda, she gives a nuanced, deadpan performance that manages to be simultaneously chilling and hilarious.
Amanda ends the film in the same place that she started, happy to accept her lot as a broken human being. Lily keeps pushing against this notion. She lives in constant denial, and so has a greater distance to fall; ultimately, she’s forced to confront the terrifying void which lurks within her. Taylor-Joy was nominated for a BAFTA Rising Star Award in 2017, and is surely destined for great things. Her performance is a masterclass in a slow-build nervous breakdown.
Thoroughbreds has been compared to Heathers, a good point of reference, though it feels more like a cross between Clueless and The Talented Mr Ripley. Patricia Highsmith would approve; Thoroughbreds is as much about morphing identities, as it is murder and family dysfunction. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent (who worked on A Girl Walks Home at Night) photographs these suburbs like a germ-free colony on a newly discovered planet – an inspired artistic decision in a world populated by people who have lost touch with their humanity.
First time writer/director Cory Finley has worked as a playwright, and it shows in his spare, elegant scene construction, and the fizzing cruelty of his dialogue. Thoroughbreds is so accomplished, it feels like the work of a seasoned filmmaker, rather than a first-timer. It’s cold, shocking, and at times, gasp-inducing hilarious. Once in a while, a film arrives which makes me think – ‘I wish I’d written that.’ Thoroughbreds is exactly that film.
REVIEW BY STEVE TIMMS
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