Good Breeding Gone Bad
Coming across like a stagier, more self-serious version of Heathers (1988) shaded with a dash of Bret Easton Ellis, Thoroughbreds, the debut feature from writer and director Cory Finley, sees two upper class teenage girls plot to murder one’s overbearing, boorish stepfather in a deft, noir-ish little thriller that picks up points for style where it loses them for lack of originality.
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the princess with a problem in the form of patriarchal Mark (Paul Sparks), her mother’s new husband, a man who very much sees himself as the king of his castle and wants nothing more than to pack his resentful step kid off to military school. It’s quite a pickle to be in, but Lily finds she has a confidante and possible secret weapon in Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a former friend she recently reunited with at the behest (and payment) of the latter’s mother. Amanda is not just a creepy kid; by her own admission, she feels no emotions whatsoever, prompting her mom to straight-up bribe Lily to study for exams with her. Amanda’s internal void does have some advantages, though — she teaches Lily to cry crocodile tears to keep her parents at bay and, more cogently, she guides her to the obvious conclusion that Mark can’t sentence her to a life of duty and discipline if he’s ten toes up.
Set in carefully manicured upper-class Connecticut and populated with characters whose polished veneers conceal bottomless blankness, Thoroughbreds is the latest in a long line of darkness-behind-the-hedgerows crime thrillers, of which David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) is probably the most prominent example in modern cinema. The point of this kind of exercise is not to uncover the serpent in paradise, but to reveal that the whole joint is a festering, coiling pit of hissing, poisonous critters — they just have designer clothes and tennis coaches. While Amanda has the self-knowledge to realize she’s probably broken, Lily is no less icily ruthless when the chips are down — she just doesn’t have horse-blood on her hands (Amanda candidly admits to euthanizing her pet nag — one more reason for her ostracism).
Our most relatable character is amiably skeevy drug dealer Tim, played by the late and much-missed Anton Yelchin, Green Room (2015), who the pair tries to blackmail into doing the deed. Tim’s a self-aggrandizing loser, but he at least balks at the notion of murdering a man for no good reason (we can speculate, but the nature of Lily’s grievance against Mark is left intentionally vague). This scruffy also-ran is our audience surrogate, and his horror at the girls’ almost casual hankering for homicide is ours.
Not to the point where we don’t want to see them do it, of course. Thoroughbreds draws a lot from Hitchcock, including the axiom that, on some level, we want to see the criminal get away with their crime, no matter how heinous. And so we wend our way to the inevitable conclusion, caught in our own complicity, both entranced and repulsed by the ghastly on-screen goings-on.
Thoroughbreds began life as a stage play, and it shows in its rather static settings and verbose script. It’s a very good verbose script, though, and there’s a lot of fun to be had as Lily and Amanda spar their way to patricide, guiding each other around both moral objections and practical considerations. It helps that they’re played by two of the best young actresses currently working — Taylor-Joy has been consistently impressive since she first made a splash in 2015’s The Witch, while Cooke’s flair for the macabre has been evident in Bates Motel (2013 – 17), Ouija (2014), The Limehouse Golem (2016), and more (she also came out of the execrable Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) and Ready Player One (2018) relatively unscathed). The two make delicious work of Finley’s crisp dialogue, and it’s hard to think of anyone currently in the game who could do a better job.
Ultimately, this isn’t a game-changer, but it is a near-perfect little gem of a film. The comparable movie that keeps presenting itself is John Dahl’s 1994 grim little piece of killer clockwork, The Last Seduction (1994), and if you’re familiar with that, you’ll know setting this effort next to that one is no faint praise. Coolly cynical, dexterously written, and utterly beholden to its own barren ethics, Thoroughbreds is a winner.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson