Snark and wit are usually part and parcel for dark comedies about teenagers. Used as both their shields and battle axes, even the edgiest humor tries to find an undercurrent of compassion and allegory for what drives the pointed barb or proverbial bullet. Hence it’s refreshing to see how much Cory Finley’s directorial debut, Thoroughbreds, subverts tradition and expectation. While this first feature certainly retraces familiar ground about teenage girls who coolly plot the murder of a total square, there is an incurious cunning about this film and its heroines. They’re not wicked because of the teenage experience; that experience is a misnomer that hides their natural wickedness. Or at least their capacity to be so, which is a distinction everyone involved seems playfully ambivalent toward.
A film that features one young woman asking another “is this your sword” during the opening scene, Thoroughbreds is as dryly aware of its style as the girls themselves are of their posh upbringing in horse country. Their names are Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), and they’re such complements to each other that it’s hardly surprising they were friends in childhood before growing apart. That is until Amanda’s mother begs (and pays) Lily to reconnect with her wayward pal. It seems Amanda has had “issues” in recent years that made her a pariah, including personally euthanizing her prized horse with her own hands.
Still, this is all perfectly fine with Lily. Whereas Amanda is openly aloof and distant—even something akin to proud of the fact that “I don’t have any feelings, ever”—Lily is tightly wound due to playing the role of polite “good girl,” at least around company she likes. But while that includes Amanda, it most certainly does not pertain to Mark (Paul Sparks), Lily’s rich stepfather who is only too happy to ship his legal responsibility off to one boarding school after she gets kicked out of another for plagiarism. She claims her mistakes were due to emotional distress over losing her real father, but really it is out of a boredom that fits hand-in-hand with Amanda’s apathy.
Eventually the line blurs as to whose idea it is to “eliminate” Lily’s stepfather, but it would certainly seem to solve a lot of their problems. After all, this is simply a stylish coming of age story where each girl coaxes the other to come out of her shell and help pressure Anton Yelchin’s poor deluded stoner into killing a guy. What else could friends be for?
There has been much made since Thoroughbreds’ Sundance premiere last year of its similarities to Heathers and other mean teen sprees. Yet this feels like it is on the wrong track. More artful and about the patient build-up to one bloody deed, as opposed to a satire of many, Thoroughbreds owes more to the era of Golden Age films that Amanda and Lily are always watching. In one of the film’s best moments, they critique the inability of 1940s movie starlets to cry without pinching their throats, a lifelong useful “technique” that one girl then passes to the other.
It’s an even nicer touch when one realizes that Thoroughbreds is stealth noir where both of its heroines are the femme fatale. Except here is a perfect slice of nihilism where instead of impeding one another, their qualities complete the other until each, in her own way, is Barbara Stanwyck, looking to the other for a Fred MacMurray level of support. In this sense, it is also a showcase for Taylor-Joy and Cooke to acquire their deadliest affectations.
Hardly a stranger at this point to the horror or thriller genres, Taylor-Joy continues to be a star on the rise by giving a disarming performance of well-groomed pleasantness masking unrestrained resentment. If Amanda has no feelings, then Lily is feeling all the time, and it is a total self-absorption that extends beyond puberty. Taylor-Joy finely underscores this with just enough self-doubt to keep audiences guessing about how far Lily can take this game. Yet the real revelation is Cooke, who gives a turn totally unlike anything we have seen from the young actor yet. Amanda would probably scowl at being called broken, but there is definitely a void in the woman’s empathy, if not her soul. For whatever she lacks though, there is also a genuine love for Lily. Cooke’s ability to bring it out is what provides a small layer of humanity hidden beneath the ice of the film’s chic tundra.
Finley proves himself to be a proficient stylist in those cold dwellings, borrowing heavily from earlier cinematic eras, but giving it a modern glossiness that is so confident it can overcome some of the film’s later narrative issues. Moving his camera for long and effortlessly moody tracking shots, Finley belies a patience that matches his heroines while waiting to make sure the job is done right. It also serves the fanged and bewildering dialogue in his own screenplay, which alternates between minimalist and unapologetically catty. This verbal rope-a-dope is often humorous and also the screenplay’s best quality.
Narratively, however, Finley seems to struggle at times with bringing all these elements to as pointed an edge as one of Amanda’s many truth bombs. Sparks and Yelchin, in one of the gifted younger actor’s final roles, are both well placed as obstacles in Lily and Amanda’s ways. Yelchin in particular finds an almost boyish innocence to a dimwitted 20-something creep who hangs around high schools to sell drugs to teenage girls. Yet, somehow, he and Finley make Yelchin seem the victim.
But like the film’s final resolution, there is a lack of pinpoint precision to match the girls’ focus. These supporting roles, including of the intended yuppie victim, never quite get their due, and the film’s third act teases without quite striking the jugular.
Even so, there is a chilly grace to Thoroughbreds’ mind games and twists, as well as its two leads, whose mutual bemusement suggests that there is nothing fake about their technique or that fatalistic bond it’s built on.
Thoroughbreds opens in limited release on March 9.