Is there any process more darkly intriguing than the build up to the decision to take a life? Cory Finlay’s debut feature positions itself to explore this process, opening seemingly in the middle of a story. Amanda (Olivia Cooke), ostracised for a violent act she has committed, is forced into the tutelage of childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy). Two white girls languishing in the wealth of their parents, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well in their lives. Lily hates her stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks), and Amanda finds it impossible to feel any emotion.
The script is alienatingly overbearing in communicating this information, allowing Amanda to explain her near psychopathy in full before remarking: “You hate him,” to Lily as Mark exits a scene. This could all be put down to Amanda’s characterisation, however, and Finlay (on directing and script duties) more than makes up for it with sparkling dialogue. This is perhaps the strongest aspect of Thoroughbreds, setting up exchanges that Sorkin or Tarantino would be happy with. Within a situation adjacent to everyday life, Finlay makes every word seem realistic, creating a back and forth between the two girls that is simultaneously tense and hilarious. As their relationship moves past awkward acquaintanceship, Amanda offers a solution to Lily’s issue: why doesn’t she just kill Mark?
An exciting new friend awakens a desire within a shy teen to commit an evil act against those who have wronged her. It may sound familiar, but likening the film to Winona Ryder vehicle Heathers does Thoroughbreds a disservice: the similarities end at the plot summary. Finlay abandons the garish 80s style Heathers exhibits, favouring instead a quiet intensity that threatens to explode at any second. Long, unbroken shots provide not only insight into the character’s world, but establish a woeful sense of Hitchcockian unease that is never shaken off. Whether the camera is following a character with an effortless fluidity reminiscent of Birdman, or is statically planted for an achingly slow zoom; it is clear that Finlay knows exactly what he wants out of each shot.
The girls’ decision to act on their satanic impulse introduces drug dealer Tim, played by Anton Yelchin. Tragically this is Yelchin’s final performance, but it is also perhaps his best: he nails the nervous, self righteous criminal duped by beautiful women. Yelchin is the standout amongst a cast that is consistently good but never great. Taylor-Joy’s initial teen anxiousness fades as the film goes on into that unnerving stare that we’ve seen before in The Witch and Split. There are moments of fantastic chemistry between her and Cooke, though, and the latter does well to capture the monotonous tone that has become a staple for a character with little empathy (think Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Lou Bloom). Sparks is on form but the potential he showcased in Boardwalk Empire has still yet to be fully utilised on the big screen.
Finlay concludes with the sentiment that we are what we were born to be. A killer isn’t created by circumstance; those murderous tendencies wallow inside of a person until circumstance allows them to come to the forefront. This isn’t a revolutionary idea: look at The Godfather, American Psycho, Nightcrawler, or almost any film where the protagonist is considered a psychopath. And yes, that includes Heathers. But for a movie paying tribute to a handful of different genres, there is a welcome touch of originality woven inside this reinvention. The film may present itself as a modern, stylised thriller, but hiding beneath the surface lingers the fascinatingly nihilistic question of whether or not we actually deserve to exist.
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