Thoroughbreds Isn't Quite a New Teen Classic
Cory Finley’s slick, but shallow debut film stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke as two friends who hatch a murder plot.
The world of Thoroughbreds consists of anonymous suburban mansions in Connecticut: spacious, immaculately designed, eerily empty, surrounded on all sides by acres of well-manicured grounds. Cory Finley’s debut film, a stylish, gripping yarn about two teenage girls who hatch a murder plot, wants the viewer to consider the environment around them. For all the fancy trimmings, it’s an entirely loveless place. So it’s no surprise that when Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) encounter a dilemma, their thoughts soon turn to homicide.
The problem is, Finley does such a complete job of building out the chilly milieu of Thoroughbreds that this clever thriller ends up being a smidge too sociopathic for its own good. To be sure, Thoroughbreds boasts an atmosphere so impassive that the film’s deadly Hitchcockian twists seem downright plausible. But I struggled to see the movie as anything but a ghoulish exercise, a taut 90 minutes that left me unmoved as its implicit violence became explicit. Perhaps that’s part of the idea—after all, the film’s central character says she can’t feel for anyone around her. But it also keeps Thoroughbreds from greatness.
Finley (who’s best known as a playwright) unfolds his plot and character backstories with precision. Amanda arrives at Lily’s house for tutoring, but it becomes clear that the two were once close friends until the vagaries of high school split them apart. Lily is put-together and popular, while Amanda is shabbily dressed and unshowered. Lily is clipped but polite, while Amanda is unfailingly blunt, remarking on the frightening scandal that got her ostracized in school (involving an alarming bit of animal cruelty) and the fact that Lily charged Amanda’s parents exorbitantly just to tutor her.
Eventually, Amanda lets slip the truth—her brain can’t process emotions, though she’s become exceptionally good at mimicking them (she can cry on command, for example). Psychiatrists have subjected her to a battery of tests and can’t decide if she’s on the spectrum, a sociopath, or something else; Finley, for his part, doesn’t probe too hard into whatever’s behind her “condition,” since it’s irrelevant to his larger point. Amanda’s dramatic emotional detachment is a kind of superpower in her merciless, ultra-wealthy world. She starts to teach Lily, who feels trapped in her luxurious estate with her bro-y new stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), how to fake tears to keep him out of her hair. Then, when Mark becomes more of an active problem (threatening to send Lily to military school), Amanda proposes what, to her, seems like the most logical of solutions: getting rid of him for good.
Thoroughbreds has drawn comparisons to other films about blood-thirsty teens, like Heathers; but in many of those movies the act of killing is largely metaphorical, an extreme allegory for the nastiness of high school. Here, it’s not so much the idea of murder that’s shocking, but how readily the girls’ moral dominoes begin to topple. Mark is a pain, no doubt—a jacked-up, aggressive man of the house lacking his own sort of empathy. But Finley delights in how quickly he has his characters considering death, and how the audience (presumably) never quite leaves their side.
Whether you, the viewer, actually endorse Lily and Amanda’s plot is obviously subjective, but I initially admired how easily Finley’s script talked me into it. After all, despite Mark’s air of malevolence, the specifics of his conflict with Lily are never really fleshed out. The case for his death falls apart at the least bit of interrogation—a reminder that Lily and Amanda’s self-delusion is central to Thoroughbreds. Their world is a cruel, consequence-free bubble, and when they try to hire a small-town drug dealer (the late Anton Yelchin) to do their dirty work for them, things start to spiral.
Yelchin’s character mostly exists to point out the terrible damage a life of privilege has done to these two young women, but by that point things had become too glib for me to care. Fortunately, as a debut film, Thoroughbreds is an interesting enough bit of neo-noir to suggest a promising future for Finley. He never leans into the violence, keeping the worst parts implied and offscreen. As a budding psychopath, Cooke is hilarious and perfectly restrained; as her protégé of sorts, Taylor-Joy gets to run the gamut of emotions, showing off the versatility she’s already displayed in horror hits like The Witch and Split. For those seeking a wickedly dark little confection, Thoroughbreds should prove a diverting watch; but those looking for anything deeper will find a lot left to be desired.