Thoroughbreds July 19, 2018
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
There are two heroines at the front of the playwright Cory Finley’s filmmaking debut, Thoroughbreds (2018). One of them feels everything all at once, as if she were the heroine in a Fiona Apple ballad. The other never feels anything at all, her emotional palette covered in dollops of grey and black. The first is named Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy); the second is named Amanda (Olivia Cooke). Lily is a doll-faced, boarding-schooled child of wealth whose pampered existence has been dirtied by her mother’s remarrying. Amanda is her unsettlingly equanimous, subaltern counterpart.
Back in the day, they were best friends. They grew apart, though, when Lily’s father died a few years back. Their relationship was further clouded when Amanda euthanized her pet horse and thus became the town’s foremost outcast not so long ago. When Thoroughbreds begins, however, the estranged twosome has reunited. Not by their own volition, though: Amanda’s chirpy — albeit concerned — mother has set up a semi-playdate disguised as a tutoring session. This initial meeting is tense, especially after Amanda both reveals that she’s well-aware that Lily is being paid to come over, and that she is unable to emote. (“I don’t have any feelings, ever,” she deadpans.)
Nonetheless, they patch things up. Amanda doesn’t reveal too much about herself, but she memorably divulges that every time she cries or appears happy, she’s just imitating someone she saw on TV. (She’s a fan of Shirley Temple’s body of work.) For the lonely, bottled-up Lily, though, the rehabilitated relationship, at least for a time, proves therapeutic.
She drops the good girl façade — she initially comes across like Lindsay Lohan sucking up to on-screen mom Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday, from 2003 — and soon lets it slip that she herself is feeling numb. She has been expelled from school, for plagiarism, and she dislikes her stepdad (Paul Sparks), an affluent but despotic man whose defining characteristic is his penchant for emotional abuse. “You hate him,” Amanda observes later in the movie. “You despise him.” Lily’s just afraid to say it out loud.
The interiors of the movie, so unblemished and expensive, call to mind the suburbia-is-hell impressions of the arcane Blue Velvet (1986) and the eternally frustrated American Beauty (1999). It is progressively claustrophobic and irritating. So when Amanda stridently brings up possibly killing Lily’s stepfather — apparently to help ease at least a portion of her friend’s discontents — it somehow manages to not seem so out of the ordinary. This sort of setting encourages that shit. At first, Lily balks at the idea. But after sitting alone with her thoughts for a time, she changes her mind. Why not?
The rest of Thoroughbreds orbits around Lily and Amanda’s quasi-Strangers on a Train (1951)-style of scheming. First, they attempt to blackmail Tim (Anton Yelchin), a scabrous and timid drug dealer, into committing the crime. When that doesn’t work out, regrouping becomes a must — and the result is something of a surprise. Although it's fair to say that most of Thoroughbreds makes for a surprise. It melds genres, lifting from Heathers (1988)-style teen-centric black comedy to existential crisis movie, from class parable to psychological horror, adroitly. It is also an unexpected triumph in stylish, minimalist composition: a little Park Chan-wook and a little Wes Anderson. (If the latter dropped the whimsy, I mean). Taylor-Joy and Cooke, as the barely legal heroines, impart a captivating, antagonistic-cum-intimate cinematic relationship; Yelchin, in one of his final roles, is note-perfectly scroungy. More remarkable is that Finley had never so much as set foot on a film set before helming Thoroughbreds. He directs with uncommon assuredness.
But the film is more commendable than it is genuinely enjoyable. It is going for, I presume, a type of gallows humor that ought to inspire critics to acclaim it for its calmly, and often wittily, delivered nastiness. But it, like Amanda (and eventually Lily), is too frosty, too hollowed, to inspire sinful delight. The screenplay is chocked full of serrated dialogue, but never contains the absurdity necessary to make its lopsided worldviews as understatedly funny as they could — and, truthfully, should — be. Is this simply a morose romp, or does it aim to be more than that? In a recent interview with Vulture, Finley facetiously opined that the film was, in some respects, a romantic comedy. A charming statement if you thought the film gelled. Vexing, though, if you’re like me and think the movie’s interesting but also uncertain as to what it wants to be. B