2018, NR, 90 min. Directed by Cory Finley. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift, Kaili Vernoff.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 9, 2018
The concept of the thoroughbred is that the better the lineage, the more refined the offspring. Of course, that's how you get inbreeding, madness, violence. But if you've got the class, and the money, who cares?
The spur in this examination of crime and punishment is an unseen sin in Connecticut: diffident teen Amanda (Cooke, an expert in dysfunctionality from Bates Motel), a horse, a darkened stable, a knife. After that, only Lily (The Witch's Taylor-Joy) will even be seen around Amanda, who plummeted in high school society from weird to pariah. Nominally, Lily is just helping her benighted former best friend with her SATs. But Amanda has little interest in college, and why would boarding-school success story Lily be wasting her own lofty ambitions of Andover and corporate internships on the neighborhood outcast? Darker, twisting schemes are clearly afoot.
The fact that the protagonists are teenage girls will inevitably invoke Heathers references, but this is more akin to the acerbic wit of a Kind Hearts and Coronets. The debut feature by writer/director Cory Finley began as a script for stage, not screen, and that shines through in the intricate dance of dialogue. There's a hint of David Mamet in his use of strictly defined silences, and flat statements as heavy implications. It's also in the staging: Barring a couple of elegantly crafted excursions, everything takes place in the ground floor of one or the other girl's home. Shades of the classic crime-comedy-thriller Deathtrap circle, as sharp-tongued banter becomes bloody intent.
Yet, for all its clear theatre-bound roots, Thoroughbreds never once feels stagey. Finley makes audacious cinematic decisions, like melding Erik Friedlander's discordant score with a repetitive and eventually essential sound effect; or racking the focus hard in pivotal moments, shifting emphasis and attention between foreground players and background clues. His script's razor-sharp timing is given detail by the flawless delivery from his leads. Cooke gives Amanda an engaging immediacy as the modern fake-it-'til-you-make-it ethos personified; counterbalancing her is yet another outstanding performance by Taylor-Joy, who gives Lily a brittle delicacy that disguises her own disturbing secrets. Finley looks past their assumed teen innocence and twists sympathies, to the point that statutory rapist/drug dealer Tim (another painfully beautiful reminder how effortlessly talented the late Anton Yelchin was) may be the most principled person in town.
Ultimately, Finley weaves little intricacies into the fabric of a very American story about the one thing America ignores: class. It's in tiny moments, like how Lily just knows that a discarded bag of chips will be picked up by unseen servants, or how Tim thinks he has a chance of making it. There are constant references to the mythical paths to success, with plagiarized essays and "Steve Jobs-ing it" all valid options for making it to adulthood. Yet the truth is always clear: Nothing wipes away blood like money and connections.