Film Review: Thoroughbreds

A masterful and comically dark debut from Cory Finley

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Thoroughbreds, which started its life as an unproduced stage play by Cory Finley, is a fresh and confident debut for the first-time director. Dark, humorous, and sharp, the film is aided by two magnetic performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, and a special assist from some of the best sound editing in a film this year. Mild spoilers ahead...

"American Psycho meets Heathers." This is how Thoroughbreds, the first feature film from director Cory Finley, is being sold to audiences. However, once you leave the theater, you might come to the same conclusion I did: Thoroughbreds is a different beast altogether, and it seems a little unfair to categorize it as just a facile homage to a pair of cult classics, even if those cult classics are as great as American Psycho and Heathers. Acerbic, biting, and witty, Cory Finley's script telegraphs its intimate stage play roots with a simple story elevated by sharp dialogue, magnetic performances, and some of the smartest uses of sound in recent cinematic memory. 

The modern filmmaker loves complexity - the current zeitgeist of the thriller and suspense genre seemingly mandates multiple points of view, whiplash-inducing twists and turns, and strange Gainax endings; Cory Finley's razor sharp script for Thoroughbreds, however, hones in on a refreshingly simple story and tells it with a great mastery of the filmmaking tools at his disposal. The film follows a rekindled friendship between ennui-ridden overachiever Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch , Split),  a prep school one-percenter with a barely-there mother (France Swift) and cold stepfather (Paul Sparks), and budding sociopath Amanda (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel, Ready Player One ), who is unable to feel any emotion or empathy but is more than capable of faking social graces. Lily’s growing discontent and Amanda’s unfiltered impulses soon brew into a dangerous mix as they plan to murder Lily’s exercise-freak stepfather - at first as a joke, then for real when they hire sad-sack drug dealer Tim (the late, great Anton Yelchin in what is likely to be his final onscreen role) to do the deed. With a relatively straightforward story, much of Thoroughbreds' narrative heavy lifting is performed by the two young leads, who sell their roles quite admirably. As with her prior roles in The Witch and Split, Anya Taylor-Joy conveys her inner strife deftly - never heavy-handed or obvious, always just bubbling beneath the surface. Olivia Cooke's unfeeling Amanda is also fantastic: from the opening moments of the film where she coldly euthanizes her mother's injured prize mare, it is simply an arresting performance that will chill you and crack you up in equal measure. The film is also tinged with real-life sadness in what is apparently Anton Yelchin's final film role. Yelchin has always been a chameleon when it comes to his acting, and his role in Thoroughbreds allows him to show off his versatility one final time as the deluded and pathetic fall-guy Tim.

While the acting is the meat of Thoroughbreds, the most surprising aspect of the film comes in Finley's confident mastery of the visual as well as audio, a feat quite rare for a first-time director. A good film tells a compelling visual story by wisely choosing what is shown, and sometimes even more effectively, what is not shown. Thoroughbreds is a fine example of cherry-picking what’s conveyed visually, and the most shockingly violent moments in the film occur offscreen, which makes those scenes all the more effective. Finley, along with cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch ), also use the camera as a storytelling tool, choosing to shoot in stunning widescreen and with a shallow depth of focus, allowing the camera to hint at important cues and at the changing power dynamics in simple back-and-forth conversations by subtly shifting the focus of the lens. But the real MVP of Thoroughbreds is its sound design. The tap-tap-tapping of a pen on a desk, the slow drip of a faucet, the rhythmic hum of a rowing machine - the film uses these diegetic audio cues rather than a heavy-handed soundtrack to ratchet up suspense, and it works brilliantly to immerse us in the girls' experiences without explicitly telling us how to feel. Even the film's soundtrack is inspired; where so many of today's films use lazy temp tracks to force-feed emotions to its audience (a funny scene will have funny music, a sad scene will have sad music), Thoroughbreds utilizes to great effect composer Erik Friedlander's unsettling score: an off-putting symphony of strings and atonal noises that enhance what's on screen without being obvious.

Every director dreams of helming under-the-radar sleepers that eventually become cult classics, but very rarely do they accomplish this right out of the gate. The perfect amalgamation of a taut script, magnetic leads, and thoughtful visuals and sound, Thoroughbreds is a truly impressive directorial debut for playwright Cory Finley. And while American Psycho and Heathers are perfectly fine films to compare it to, Thoroughbreds soars on its own merits and is hopefully just a taste of Mr. Finley's craft.

GRADE: A