On its premise alone, there doesn’t seem to be much that differentiates playwright Cory Finley’s debut film Thoroughbreds from so many other self-consciously cool first features. With morally detached protagonists, a farcical murder plot, and winking nods to old Hollywood, it seems at first glance like a cookie-cutter Tarantino knockoff. But, as always, the execution of this story is all, and Finley pulls it off with a largely original style, bolstered by two brilliant central performances. A taut, 90 minute blast of a teenage thriller, Thoroughbreds is about as polished and slick as any first film could hope to be.
Carrying the whole film are Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke as Lily and Amanda, two obscenely wealthy teenage girls about to be shipped off to boarding school for their final year before college. Childhood friends, their recent estrangement is fixed when Amanda’s mother starts paying Lily to tutor her daughter and Amanda reveals that she lacks the ability to feel. Though this initially freaks Lily out, Amanda’s learned empathy allows her to detect Lily’s explosive, all-consuming anger behind her calm façade, and her casual suggestion of murdering the man behind all this rage, Lily’s stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks), takes a firm hold of both of their minds.
Taylor-Joy and Cooke are absolutely superb, giving riveting, superstar performances. Cooke, despite her character’s general emotional blankness, is the less opaque of the two leads, and as such earns the majority of both the sympathy and the laughs from the audience. Thoroughbreds, though not really a comedy, is funny, with a lot of deadpan dialogue and brilliant facial expressions from Cooke, and the humour gets a lot broader whenever hapless drug dealer Tim (the late Anton Yelchin) pops up. Taylor-Joy is more reserved in a less obviously likable role, and does a very fine line in just about holding back a storm of fury.
Finley tells his story with remarkable efficiency, establishing just how colossal a tool Mark is in a mere two hilarious shots and moving the plot along at a great pace. It does mean that Thoroughbreds is rather shallow, but when it’s this entertaining, that’s only a minor quibble. While the first two acts are more concerned with atmosphere and character than thrills, the third ramps up considerably, finding smart new ways to escalate and puncture the tension, aided by a deeply disconcerting score from Erik Friedlander. All tribal percussion and breathless momentum, it’s a bravura soundtrack that shows Finley’s stylistic confidence.
It’s an earned confidence, for the most part, with some really great shots and neat visual storytelling. As Lily starts to take sole, unthinking control of her and Amanda’s plan, Cooke starts getting pushed to the edge of frames, floating in corners like a fashionable, bored ghost. Thoroughbreds doesn’t revel in the opulence of its settings, instead focusing on how soulless wealth can be. Despite its modern furnishings, Lily’s house feels as haunted as any creaky Victorian mansion, the silent servants of the day giving way to the monotonous, house-filling groan of Mark’s rowing machine at night.
DOP Lyle Vincent deserves plenty of plaudits for making even the brightest summer days look freezing cold through his lens, and he makes a habit of very unnerving close-ups of eyes. A couple of scenes are too obviously stylised for the sake of it, but Thoroughbreds is generally very impressive on the technical front. Finley stumbles at the very end, the final scenes made up of a couple of monologues that don’t ring as true as they should, but this is still a hugely impressive debut that promises great things to come for all involved on both sides of the camera.