From first-time writer-director Cory Finley comes a unique brand of horror film that isn’t about scares or bodycounts. Thoroughbreds is about the creeping tension that accompanies a murder so meticulously planned that you never believe for a second that it’s actually going to happen.
Set in the affluent, suburban Connecticut homes of Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch and Split) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke, “Bates Motel” and soon to star in Ready Player One), who grew up together but drifted apart simply because their paths went in different directions. Lily was the perfect princess, living with her mother (Francie Swift) and rich new stepdad (Paul Sparks), who’s a real entitled piece of work.
Amanda’s path drifted into much darker territory, which apparently culminated in her murdering her beloved horse. But as we discover when the two are reunited for tutoring sessions provided by Lily, Amanda has diagnosed herself as a sociopath who can mimic emotional responses (her ability to cry on command is impressive) but feel nothing. She also has no filter when it comes to speaking her mind and the truth about others, and she’s convinced that the best course of action in Lily’s life is to kill her stepfather, who is determined to send her to a boarding school for troubled teens and finally get her out of his house.
Much of the structure of Thoroughbreds is similar to Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking Heavenly Creatures, although rather than lose themselves in a fantasy world to motivate their crimes, Lily and Amanda only have to peek in to the corners of their actual upper-class world to find the tools they need to kill.
At a party, they spot young drug dealer Tim (the late Anton Yelchin) and eventually blackmail him into committing the crime while they are safely out of town, securing their respective alibis. Things don’t go quite as planned, but the grand mishap leads Amanda to realize that maybe she isn’t completely devoid of feelings or the ability to make a friend.
Watching the two young women bond while bringing out each other’s worst qualities is a fascinating, hypnotic and darkly humorous process that is the dark heart of the film. Taylor-Joy continues to impress me with each new role, and Cooke has a natural ease in front of the camera in any type of role. I’ve seen her play the sweetest person in the world in some films, but that somehow organically positions her to take on a character like Amanda.
If I had one complaint about Thoroughbreds, it’s that Paul Sparks is much too easy to hate; by the end of the film, you’re practically rooting for the girls to kill the guy. But the twisted nature of their plan might have been all the more so if the stepfather was only mildly nasty. That being said, Sparks plays this very human monster flawlessly, and perhaps Finley’s point is to allow the audience to want to murder him as well. If so, well done.
It should also be noted that Yelchin plays a scumbag hustler who deals drugs to kids note perfectly. If memory serves, this movie marks the last of his unreleased works to come out (it premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival), and while it’s a supporting part, Tim is a great, jittery character that Yelchin sinks his teeth into with gusto. He was a terrific, versatile actor who is still missed nearly two years after his death, and Thoroughbreds is a fine showcase for his and his co-stars’ talents.