Synopsis – Two upper-class teenage girls in suburban Connecticut rekindle their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. Together, they hatch a plan to solve both of their problems-no matter what the cost.
My Take – Every year between a whole lot mix of blockbusters and award friendly dramas, a few independent films pass by without much notice, with this feature film debut from filmmaker Cory Finley being a perfect example. Apart from being Anton Yelchin‘s final starring role, this film marked as one of the highlight Indies of the year, takes a wickedly sharp, funny, and suspenseful look at the thin divide between our emotions and our actions, and finds fault and value in both halves as brought to beautifully engaging life by two incredibly talented young actors.
Sure, the film is not perfect, but with a sharp screenplay along with some well-directed moments of suspense, it’s quite an impressive one. Being compared by critics to films like American Psycho and Heathers, the film itself feels like a play from its structure, and works on how simple and unpredictable the plot is. If you are into this kind of dark twisted comedies and dramas then this is worth giving a look at.
Set in the upper class suburban neighborhood of Connecticut, the story follow Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), an intelligent wealthy high school student who feels everything and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), also an intelligent wealthy high school student who feels nothing. Drifted apart by time, the two are reacquainted when Amanda’s mother Karen (Kaili Vernoff), hires Lily to tutor Amanda for college entrance exams, and despite the huge difference in their personalities, the two begin to bond, especially after Amanda opens Lily’s eye’s to her less than favorable family surroundings, specifically her overbearing and emotionally abusive father Mark (Paul Sparks) and weak mother (Francie Swift).
In order to make things better, the two take it upon themselves to plot and murder Mark, for which they hire Tim (Anton Yelchin), a low level drug dealer with high aspirations, all with disastrous results. What follows is the mind-bending, winding-road which attempts to fit either or both of these characters into some normal category of human behavior, instead, what lies beneath is slowly unsheathed. As Amanda and Lily interact, we especially come to realize that Amanda is drawing out what’s behind the proper front that Lily wears on a daily basis. While the psychopathic rich kid genre is not exactly untouched territory, in the hands of first time writer-director Cory Finley, the film manages to emerge from its presentation as a breath of fresh air.
Throughout the first two acts, the film is a very odd and quirky piece of independent cinema that takes some weird turns. The planning, the solving, the interactions with strange people (Alex Wolff in a cameo), make for some very interesting character development and revelations. I felt quite unnerved at times and the final act of this film had me cringing, and not necessarily in a good or bad way. The remarkable thing about Cory Finley‘s direction and writing is how well he creates tension throughout the scenes with just dialogue and pacing. Drawing heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for inspiration, director Finley employs a dissonant score, thudding chapter titles, and sweeping Steadicam shots that rove through a gargantuan manse that suggests the second coming of the Overlook Hotel, all of which work to lend the film an atmosphere of icy dread from its opening shots. Also, without having to show any violence or gore on screen, director Finley uses very descriptive disturbing dialogue, careful framing and pacing to make your skin crawl.
A kind of direction which would be very appropriate for a Stephen King horror adaptation. An atmosphere of dread and pending doom hovers over most every scene, yet somehow it’s simultaneously funny and disturbing. We find ourselves asking if it’s OK to laugh at some of the exchanges, especially as Amanda explains how she’s not a bad person, the line will make one chuckle, while also making one realize how she actually believes it and we shouldn’t! As she teaches her tutor Lily “the technique”, we become convinced the line has been crossed into psychopathy. The actual humor is much more subtle than one would imagine, especially compared to the off the wall ludicrousness of Heathers. Where Heathers strove for campiness, here the film chooses to keep things subdued and practical, which fits in the realistic tension between the arches between Lily and Amanda. Even the music score by Erik Freidlander comes off as eerie without screaming itself out, as it balances the realistic albeit creepy tone of the film when needed, aided by well shot scenes that add quiet gloominess and tension.
Throughout, director Finley cleverly alters our perceptions of Lily and Amanda, gradually shifting our allegiances from one girl to the other while never betraying the characters’ distinctly peculiar personalities. The film is most realized when certain character moments and shifts are captured. For instance, there is a brief moment when Lily is awakened by the loud sound of her rich stepfather Mark’s workout machine, which is represented by zooming in on her eye as it opens. This simple camera zoom, combined with a building score, relays with uneasy grace that Lily’s initial apprehension is faltering. The duo’s increasingly malign behavior grows organically from their poisonous relationship, in which Lily’s selfishness finds reinforcement in Amanda’s cold rationality.
Much later in the film, when Amanda discovers that her drink had been laced with Rohypnol, her expression is caught for the first time showing an emotion-shock and surprise, suggesting that she, too, is vulnerable, more so than she likely thinks herself to be. Their odd-couple friendship feels natural thanks to Cooke and Taylor-Joy’s prickly chemistry. However, the film is also plagued with a variety of inconsistencies, the main one being that, if Amanda is in-fact void of emotions, then why is she so loyal to Lily and her master plan of murder? Plus, Tim could have been granted a little more screen, even though the reasons for keeping him out of much of the film, up until the end, are fairly sensible. For a general audience, the calculated feel of the film can become a bit patience-testing. Although there is a lot of subtlety in the character development, the plot at large does come off as feeling a tad slight and there are stretches of the film where you may have a nagging feeling that not much is happening. Also, while the social commentary is clearly there, it is perhaps a bit under cooked, and the ending monologue by Amanda attempts to bring the themes into greater focus, but it’s a little too late to feel substantial.
Sure, this is the kind of film which won’t fully resonate for many, but keeping in mind the confidence and the vision, it sure seems like director Cory Finley has an interesting career ahead. As for the acting, considering the talent involved, it’s obviously effortless and convincing, which makes this story all the more insidious. As I mentioned above, Anya Taylor Joy and Olivia Cooke have excellent chemistry together. Separately, Anya Taylor-Joy does a splendid job, with her huge compelling put to good use, while Olivia Cooke completely immerses herself into the role and brings a large amount dimension to her cold, sociopath character despite that she lacks human emotions. With this as his final performance before his passing, the late Anton Yelchin provides much laughter as the pathetic yet ambitious drug dealer Tim. His character provides far more emotional weight to the film than I was expecting. The way his character meets these girls and intertwines his own life with theirs was a very interesting revelation. Paul Sparks keeps his role rather nuanced while coming off as condescending and bitter, and it’s not hard to root for Lily to get rid of him. On the whole, ‘Thoroughbreds‘ is a dark, twisted, and funny thriller, which despite its shortcomings manages to be engaging and effective.
Directed – Cory Finley
Rated – R
Run Time – 92 minutes