The story of Thoroughbreds is one that feels familiar. I was getting strong Heavenly Creatures vibes with a dash of Bling Ring in the theater, but one doesn’t even need to look that hard to find the deterioration of empathy and morals in America’s youth. Some argue people are just born bad. Others say they are bred. In his confident feature debut, director Cory Finley suggests it’s a little of both.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) feels nothing most of the time. It’s not a new development though, as she explains to her former best friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy). Her emotional output, when needed, is dictated by those around her. She interprets the need for a hug at a funeral and cries on cue when needed. She’s not a bad person, she just needs to work a little harder than others at being “good.” In any other movie I would have rolled my eyes at such a line, but Cooke plays Amanda with a great sense of dark sincerity. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and she’s stuck being a part of civilized society, so she takes it upon herself to learn how to play at empathy.
By all accounts, Lily looks put together and is taken aback by her friend’s blunt matter-of-factness. Amanda’s mother is paying Lily to tutor Amanda, but it’s more a ruse for them to start hanging out again since the incident that is the backbone of this film. Amanda is cast out of her privileged Connecticut enclave when she brutally euthanizes a horse who is injured. It’s important to understand though for the sake of Amanda’s character and what is to come, that the intention to brutalize the horse was never the plan. It just happened that way because when you are a teenager using black market drugs and not a licensed veterinarian things go wrong very fast that you need to fix with whatever is on hand. Like a kitchen knife. I won’t go into detail about the effort it takes to get a kitchen knife through the neck of a horse (Amanda does that well enough), but suffice it to say that although I believe it took some level of empathy on Amanda’s part to end this horse’s life, it takes a psychopath to go about it the way she did.
Amanda is nuts but she is also not the one I would worry about in this film. Like Amanda, Lily is played to perfection by Taylor-Joy. Her preppy outfits, dewy face, and shiny pinned-up hair all staples of the enormous wealth around her. But she is also hiding some intense rage over her stepfather, who is sending her away to a boarding school for girls with behavior issues (she hates him for other more important reasons, but this is the last straw). Lily is a manipulator and self-preservationist to the highest degree, but unlike Amanda, she doesn’t have the stomach for the dirty work. They are opposites, who work in tandem to enable each other to commit murder.
The more I think about this film the more I have come to like it despite some of the beats during the film’s finale. The director is a playwright turned filmmaker, who had never stepped foot on a film set until his first day on Thoroughbreds. His greenness doesn’t show here, not one tiny bit. He has mastered the art of tension and cinematic discomfort. From the moment this film began I was unsettled, as I watched Amanda slowly walk through Lily’s house ingesting everything around her, gathering information (ammunition?) for use later. And remember, she’s the one I wouldn’t worry about. Finley also plays suspense well, composing shots in just the right way to invite our anticipation for something worse to come.
The soundtrack is equal parts disturbing, with discordant notes smashed up against each other and creepy scales plucked out from piano keys by a two-year-old. When our spine isn’t being tingled, we are listening to bass-heavy techno (this is where Bling Ring comes in). It all coalesces into a most satisfying experience of being just scared enough.
Thoroughbreds ends in the only way it can, but some of the character choices that get us there left me wanting something slightly different and more in line with what I’d been watching up to that point. This is especially the case with Amanda. Nevertheless, the exploration this film takes us on is a worthy one, examining not only the dynamics of an interdependent female friendship but also the terrifying fragmentation of the teenage brain.
Thoroughbreds opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.