Who needs empathy when you have privilege? That’s the question Cory Finley’s razor-sharp debut raises and answers with admirable confidence and wicked style. Thoroughbreds presents the moral degradation of those who face no barriers to get what they want. Empathy may hinder ambition, but a lack of empathy is a fatal human flaw with devastating consequences.
Childhood friends Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) are forced to reconnect after Amanda kills her prized horse out of mercy. The thing is Amanda is a borderline sociopath — she has no feelings, she explains, and though she has cycled through diagnoses, she concedes that it’s just the way she’s programmed. She’s become a master imitator: perfecting “the technique” of fake crying, and practicing her empty smiles in the mirror. Someone with no emotions may ring warning bells for a dull character, but Olivia Cooke pulls it off with her hilarious deadpan delivery. Lily is the complete opposite — a prim and proper rich girl, she lies and lies to hide how unhappy she is with her life, with her cruel stepdad being the source of most of her frustrations. Lily is being paid an extortionate amount of money to hang out with Amanda, so their conversations are cold and awkward at first. But Amanda’s candour eventually melts Lily’s tough exterior, allowing her to be as open with her — ultimately revealing that she wants to kill her stepdad.
The sheer brilliance of Thoroughbreds is in the way it weaponises Taylor-Joy and Cooke’s appearances at first glance. They are both manic pixie dream girl types (as Cooke played so devastatingly well in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) with all their pre-packaged innocence. Much like the Robert Eggers subverts Taylor-Joy’s apparent innocence in The Witch, Cory Finley does the same with his leads. Anya Taylor-Joy is just as dynamic as her scene partner — Lily is reserved but Taylor-Joy’s face tells all. She can externalise every emotion on the palette with ease, reminding us that she is one of the most commanding actresses of recent memory. As Amanda’s lack of a moral compass begins to rub off on her, she transforms from a girl trapped in her frustrations to one that takes control (albeit in questionable ways). Lily and Amanda are each other’s foils, leading to a surreal but electric chemistry as the actors riff off each other at lightning speed with sharp dialogue that puts even the best black comedies to shame. The late Anton Yelchin also stars, in what is now his last film, as a small-time drug dealer with big ambitions, who gets blackmailed by the girls to do their dirty work. The role is far too small (he only appears in a handful of scenes) but Yelchin shines, possessing immense bravado and impeccable comedic timing.
Thoroughbreds is thrillingly dark and revels in the tension that winds and winds, just waiting to snap. Much of the action takes place at Lily’s house, a mansion-sized estate that screams the height of decadence and privilege. Despite its size, the film captures how suffocating it feels for Lily with a ghostly, omnipresent camera. Finley enlists Hitchcockian tracking shots as it traverses the unsettlingly pristine halls and maps its geography. It gives the eerie feeling of being an intruder in someone else’s home — all too perfect for the scheme the girls conjure. The smooth cinematography (thanks to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night cinematographer Lyle Vincent) gives off the vibe that this film is just too damn cool, and the fact that this is all coming from a first-time director — all you can do is marvel at the gutsy confidence Finley flaunts. He is brave enough to let shots linger for inordinate amounts of time (even refusing to show the action at certain scenes), but knowing when to cut at just the right moment. These exercises in tension-building superbly demonstrate just how capable Finley is at engineering the tightest of thrillers. A special mention is in order for Erik Friedlander’s score — an atonal cacophony of booming percussion and screeching strings. It shouldn’t work but somehow does. It’s confounding and uncomfortable, but perfectly represents these characters who are (or starting to) fall off the rails.
I first saw Thoroughbreds back in October and it’s rarely left my mind since — so much so that when I heard that it was showing at Glasgow Film Festival, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to see it again. To many, it probably recalls other teen films that dabble in immorality (namely, Heathers) but Thoroughbreds is able to carve its own path, setting itself apart from the pack as an excitingly unique thriller with wit and style to match.