“Let’s just kill half of Connecticut?”
It’d be easy to dismiss Cory Finley’s directorial debut as a film of privilege. Its young characters live on million-dollar estates and their psychological issues are shrugged off with money too. The parents’ issues are petty and have little interest in anything else but themselves and their ivory towers.
But this isn’t viewed through a privileged, downy white lens. It’s a dark comedy that if any sharper written would leave the audience needing stitches. Finley gradually turns his characters on their heads, flipping roles in a brief 90 minutes subverting audience expectations.
The expectation being, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a naturally stoic high schooler who recently killed a horse in cold blood with a knife, is supposed to be the nutcase. Finley uses a cold open with a wide shot of Amanda looking at the horse followed by a shot of a knife. You know what happens next without seeing. As soon as she enters a mansion to meet Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) for tutoring, there’s an expectation Amanda’s capable of doing the same to her absent mother who she quickly condemns.
Finley’s smarter than that, though.
Amanda, not even in the house for five minutes picks up on Lily’s hatred of her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) and plants the idea of killing him. There’s little reason behind the idea for Lily, an honor roll student with a high-level internship she mentions on occasion, but in her life of privilege, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for him if her mother won’t leave her new husband who uses money to shove his problems like Lily out of sight and out of mind.
This idea to bury Mark takes on a life of its own and turns into a plot using a sexual abuser and drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) to do the job in exchange for $100,000. There’s an idea of a hierarchy of people’s lives. A person like Tim who’s aspiration to be a drug lord while working as a dishwasher certainly has less to lose than a pretty Ivy League-bound student.
Gradually, Lily and Amanda become more unlikeable as they rekindle their lost friendship. They become the antiheroes we love to hate as they continue to devise a plan to take Mark out.
Finley also knows exactly when to reveal new information what to hold back to keep the relationships and character stability at a safe distance to create a meaningful payoff. Why does Amanda kill the horse? How good of a student (and person) is Lily actually? These are all answered but never too soon, each with profound revelations to turn the tables.
If it feels like a play, it’s because Finley originally wrote it as a stage production. As he showed it around to friends, it became clearer it’d be a greater production on screen but he still uses stage practices to amplify everything at stake.
The film’s broken into various chapters and often uses cuts to black as if the stage is resetting. But they also help build the tension, letting the audience create their own image of what’s going on. No one wants to see the dead horse, so Finley doesn’t show us but a brief description makes it worse than first imagined. It certainly makes for a visceral experience.
Adding to that is an animalistic sound design that helps define its characters. Amanda earns a brooding theme to match her icy exterior while Lily’s is initially more lively and Mark becomes defined by his rowing machine’s rumbling heard through the floor.
Those elements and more help form already fantastic performances from top to bottom. The late Yelchin churns out one of his best performances, scared but ultimately brave and well-intentioned. Sparks sans House of Cards beard has temperament anyone would be ready to kill.
But the real stars are still Cooke and Taylor-Joy, particularly the latter who nails her character’s arc right down to her posture to show new strengths. Cooke’s main draw as always is how well she controls the frame with her emotion ranging from stoic yet controlling to submissive and innocent. The two also hold considerable chemistry to heighten each scene their in together. Luckily, that’s a majority of the time. Add Yelchin to the equation when he’s coerced into being an assassin, few films this year have reached that level of intensity and comedic genius.
Thoroughbreds is a true masterclass of dark comedy that holds your attention through the very last frame.