Alternatively disturbing and amusing in its clinical observation of adolescent amorality and apathy, “Thoroughbreds” works as a fascinating mix of character drama and adolescent thriller. While calmly observing its two teenage main characters slowly heading toward an inevitable narrative point, the movie chillingly examines the dark dynamics in their pathological relationship, and we cannot help but watch them with fascination even though we come to observe them from the distance without much care.
After the quiet opening scene which later turns out to be a prelude for something as gruesome as that climatic scene of “Equus” (1977), the movie moves forward to the awkward meeting between Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke). Although these two affluent suburban teenage girls were once close to each other, we sense the distance between them as they interact with each other, and that becomes more evident when Amanda flatly points out the actual purpose of their meeting. On the surface, Lily, who is an ambitious student ready to go further in her education course, is supposed to tutor Amanda as requested by Amanda’s mother, but she is actually paid mainly for hanging out with Amanda, who has been more ostracized by other kids due to her certain serious act of brutality.
Anyway, they come to spend more time together in a big, expensive house where Lily lives along with her mother and her stepfather, and Amanda show more of her sociopathic side to Lily. As a girl who has been comfortable with her dark side, Amanda frankly and casually admits how apathic she is (“It just means I have to work a little harder than everybody else to be good.”), and we get a darkly amusing moment when she demonstrates to Lily how easily she can pretend to be emotional with a few drops of tear.
Rather than scared or disturbed, Lily becomes more fascinated with Amanda because, well, she sort of complements Amanda as a self-absorbed girl who is often too emotional about many things including her stepfather and her recent school problem. As a matter of fact, she was expelled from her private school due to an act of plagiarism, and her stepfather, who is not a very nice guy to say the least, is already prepared to send his stepdaughter to a private school for girls with behavioral problems.
As Lily becomes upset about this situation and comes to resent her stepfather more, Amanda phlegmatically suggests that Lily kill her stepfather. As frightened by that idea, Lily subsequently puts some distance between herself and Amanda, but then she changes her mind as being reminded again of how much she hates her stepfather, so they begin to talk more seriously about eliminating him as continuing to spend their idle time as usual.
They decide that they need somebody else to commit the killing, and Lily happens to know who might be able to do that. At a party which she attended along with her other friends, she came across a young small-time drug dealer named Tim (Anton Yelchin), and he seemed to be a guy who can do anything for money, but, not so surprisingly, he turns out to be a mere petty criminal struggling to earn his living everyday.
Nevertheless, Lily and Amanda do not change their plan at all, and there is a morbidly funny moment as they pressure Tim to accept their demand. Quite oblivious to how inadequate he is for their plan, they are willing to do anything for pushing him toward the killing of Lily’s stepfather, and he comes to see that he has no choice at all as being heartlessly cornered by them.
I will not go into details on what happens next, but I can tell you instead that the screenplay by first-time director Cory Finley takes a few unexpected narrative turns while the movie continues to maintain its phlegmatic attitude as before. Although it occasionally shows its theatrical aspects, the movie effectively establishes its creepy atmosphere under Finley’s confident direction, and Finely and his crew members did a good job of constantly unsettling us. The cinematography by Lyle Vincent is smooth and precise with subtle visual touches, and the percussive score by Erik Friedlander adds more nervous feeling to the screen as suggesting whatever is churning below the surface.
Finley also draws the solid performances from his four main cast members. Anna Taylor-Joy, who drew my attention via her breakthrough turn in “The Witch” (2015) and then impressed me further with her good acting in “Split” (2016), is gradually unnerving as her neurotic character reveals more of her unlikable side along the story, and Olivia Cooke, who is quite different here from her recent appearance in “Ready Player One” (2018), is equally effective with her character’s detached sociopathy. As Lily’s unpleasant stepfather, Paul Sparks brings additional tension to the story as required, and Anton Yelchin, who unfortunately died shortly after the shooting of the movie, imbues his pathetic supporting character with considerable sympathy and nervousness.
Although it received many positive reviews when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, “Thoroughbreds” was released in US early in this year without much notice, and that is a shame considering that this is one of the notable debut works of this year. While I am not wholly enthusiastic about the movie, I admire Finley’s commendable handling of mood, storytelling, and performance, and I think it deserves to be mentioned along with other memorably disturbing adolescent drama movies such as “Heavenly Creatures” (1994).