In Thoroughbreds, writer-director Cory Finley delivers an astonishing debut. The film features two astounding lead performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as a pair of grim highschoolers. The plot of the film unwinds in four chapters (plus an epilogue), in which information is revealed piecewise and the tension and mystery of this thriller matures into a chilling climax. All the while, the spectator is treated to some stunning cinematography that perfectly captures the pristine affluence of the setting while simultaneously hinting at some dark kernel. This grim tone permeates the film, lending Thoroughbreds an additional layer of significance and meaning.
The plot of Thoroughbreds is very easily summarized: two estranged friends with hidden secrets start to hang out again, one suggests that they kill the other’s stepfather. These friends are Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke). The film opens with a cryptic preamble starring Amanda before the two friends reunite for a study session where the two characters are sussed out at a very basic level: Amanda is a self-identified sociopath incapable of emotion and annoyed by artifice, and Lily is a prim-and-proper good girl student mostly there for the money (paid by Amanda’s mom, desperate to get Amanda a friend).
Amanda is a keen observer of social cues, though she lacks genuine emotions herself. As such, she immediately identifies that Lily is only there as a favor, that she has a strained relationship with her mother and step-father, and that there’s a little more than meets the eye to this honor student. Eventually, Lily is pushed beyond her limits and finally tells Amanda what she really thinks. The honesty impresses Amanda, and the two begin a genuine friendship based on their mutually sardonic approach to life.
This plot unravels in a straightforward structure. The story is broken into four chapters, with the aforementioned preamble and an epilogue to clean everything up. This episodic structure provides the film with a kind of momentum, subtlely increasing the tension as each chapter reaches a definitive conclusion, ramping up the stakes considerably. Each chapter also builds on the information released in the previous one, as details of the girls’ relationship and past deeds are revealed piecewise.
As impressive as Finley’s plot and story structure is, the performances from Taylor-Joy and Cooke are the true triumphs of Thoroughbreds. Olivia Cooke adopts a vacant kind of disinterest in most of the goings-on, as though most of the world is beneath her. She’s devilishly clever, and she has established a rigorous moral code that she abides by in every undertaking, despite her sociopathy. It is hard to say if her character truly changes through the events of the story, but it does feel as though she gains something important. Anya Taylor-Joy is her equal. At the onset of the story, she is easily rattled by Amanda, a pent-up priss. Later, as she gains confidence and her friendship with Amanda grows, Taylor-Joy imbues Lily with fire, determination, and a sadistic kind of glee. It’s a fascinating arc with a superb payoff. Both women are fantastic in these roles; their performances are worth the price of admission alone. And lastly, Anton Yelchin appears in a supporting role, his final on the big screen. He’s a great little blowhard, and a coward, and certainly a fun inclusion.
The camera in Thoroughbreds is an active one, but is always sure to capture and convey the key tension of the film: beneath all of this affluence is a darkness; beneath the appearance of joy, a fundamental sadness. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent employs a lot of tracking and following shots, exploring the pristine environment of New England wealth. The shots are always clear and vivid, an expression of the superficial beauty of this world – and the satisfaction that is implied by such beauty. White dominates the color palette of the film. And yet, there is a distinct feel that this is all a facade, that there are darker things underpinning this alabaster surface. One cinematographic hint could be interpreted from the frequent shift of focal point that the film often employs. There are many shots where the focus will shift from a subject in the foreground to another in the background (and sometimes, it will even shift back). Most often, the focus shifts between two characters, drawing the spectators eye back and forth. Beyond directing our eyes, it also suggests that there is more going on than we see on first glance.
Taken all together, these aspects generate a peculiar tone for Thoroughbreds, and a strange mixture of themes. With a grim touch, the film discusses ideas like friendship, feelings, ambition, family, and how the appearance of one’s success and status can obscure fundamental challenges below the surface. Though the movie focuses on a murder plot and the ultimately climax is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling, there is a moving ode to friendship hidden beneath the actual act of violence. The same is true for the inciting event of the story (and, the film’s namesake), where Amanda kills her own horse. It is fundamentally unsettling and scary, but it is motivated by a tenderness that doesn’t feel like it should mesh – but it somehow does.
So, yes, Thoroughbreds is a dark film, rife with sociopathy, murder, and violence. But, it is also somehow a sweet little story about friendship, moral fortitude, and following one’s dreams. The film sports an immaculate execution, and a great look, and is home to absolutely outstanding performances from the two leads. Thoroughbreds is a truly powerful thriller, balancing affluence and bleakness with surprising deftness.