Big houses. Big personalities. Big ambitions. Based on the opulent setting and over-privileged characters of Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, one might expect this dark teen comedy to veer into camp as its depraved leads plan to murder one of their stepdads. Instead, Finley’s debut feature film exudes a glacially deadpan tone, finding the humor within the awkward silences and flippant proclamations that these two girls seem to thrive in. What comes from this particularly enigmatic style is a film as thrilling as it is stifling, as funny as it is disturbing and as inscrutable as it is eye-opening.
After engaging in a grotesque act of violence, robot-like Amanda (Olivia Cooke) reconnects with an estranged friend, straight-laced Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy). During a tense reunion, in which Amanda admits to feeling absolutely nothing and probably having antisocial personality disorder, the two girls begin a strange, off-putting relationship. They spend their time having breath-holding competitions and discussing how much they despise Lily’s stepdad (Paul Sparks), a certified jerk and fitness zealot. Though both self-absorbed in completely different ways, these very motivated and very delusional rich girls reveal themselves to be the perfect match to enact the most ultimate of ambitions: murder. Of course, hijinks ensue and the plot twists and turns into surprising directions, but Finley’s dark comedy-thriller stands out thanks to the revelatory performances by its two young leads and its rhythmic, slow-moving style.
Thoroughbreds wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the committed, darkly idiosyncratic performances by the two main actors. Olivia Cooke takes her deadpan style from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to the next level with Amanda. With deft comic timing and a killer blank face, Cooke gives an expressionless character surprising magnetism. When she matter-of-factly admits to faking her tears at Lily’s father’s funeral, one can’t help being dangerously captivated with her straight-forward, transparent attitude to life’s cruelest moments. Not to say that Anya Taylor-Joy’s take on the preppy Lily isn’t as deliciously wicked. Taylor-Joy plays her with a startling control, shrouding her unhinged tendencies with a Stepford Wife-in-training demeanor. She has the trickiest arc to navigate, and finds a way to manipulate the audience as much as she does the people around her. As Lily’s secrets reveal themselves and her true motivations become more clear, the dynamics between the two transcend a twisted friendship into something much more nefarious. Cooke and Lily-Taylor’s performances help to elevate the film from genre shlock to eye-opening character study, revealing the unempathetic, selfish drive that compels many of the world’s most privileged people.
But what’s most startling about the film is its observant camera and sedate pacing. Cory Finley exploits the innate uncomfortability of the film, confidently using long takes and slow tracking shots to induce detachment rather than awe of the luxurious settings. Long stretches of dialogue consistently remain uncut, allowing awkward silences and suggestive glances to not only encourage cringe-inducing laughter, but also tease clues to understanding the mental stability of the characters themselves. The camera clearly finds these girls fascinating, and much of the film focuses in on their faces and the cold distances they keep from each other. Thoroughbreds ’ climax proves to be particularly inspired, allowing all of the action on-screen (and off) to take place in one long slow zoom. American 2010s indie films have over-utilized this technique as a tension-builder (think Martha Marcy May Marlene or The Witch) to the point of exhaustion, but the way Finley executes this climactic slow zoom conjures a palpable sense of dread and anxiety. He must have taken cues from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games - sometimes the most interesting thing to watch is not the most obvious - and Thoroughbreds ’ uniquely funny style appears as unfeeling as the ruthless minds of Lily and Amanda themselves.
Thoroughbreds’ plodding rhythm can sometimes go into tedium territory, especially in the middle. In particular, a subplot that finds the girls trying to blackmail a hapless drug dealer (the late Anton Yelchin in his final film role) ends up not going anywhere and doesn’t work within the strict confines of the film’s specific comic style. Thankfully, the actors’ performances propel Thoroughbred s through its less-than-exciting moments. Not to mention that the experimental score by Erik Friedlander perfectly accents the film’s bubbling-under-the-surface madness. Overall, Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds is definitely worth watching, not only as a stand-alone, but also as another fine entry into what 2010s indie film has brought to the dark comedy subgenre. It has been frequently compared to Heathers , but I also see it fitting in very nicely with other contemporary films like The Lobster and Force Majeure . With this much weight and humor, the fact that it’s also a teen film makes it all the more envelope-pushing.
Kirk Van Sickle