Thoroughbreds feels like a contemporary Hitchcockian thriller. Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke are affluent girls gone bad, slowly building their twisted friendship to climax – with a plot to murder. Director Cory Finley, as a playwright, utilises an intelligent use of dialogue and precise framing to create a confident sense of unease. It’s Cruel Intentions via Equus as rich kids, horses and murder are boiled together into a concoction that memorably leaves a lingering aftertaste.
Amanda (Cooke) walks up to a mansion. A maid looks for Lily (Taylor-Joy) as Amanda looks through the items left lying around this palace of a home. Lily, with a stiff back and conservative clothing, appears. She is hesitant while Amanda is bolshie and says-it-how-it-is. Amanda has been sent by her mother for tutoring with Lily, but that’s not why Amanda is there. As young girls, they were both passionate horse riders but they drifted apart. Only recently, Amanda murdered a horse and has since been a social outcast. Lily’s hesitance is fuelled by this history, but she is curious. Very quickly, they begin to connect and Amanda shrewdly observes how much Lily despises her stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). From this point, Lily begins to unravel and reveal her own dark thoughts.
The two actors hold the film between each other and you’re pulled into their unique, strange personalities. Olivia Cooke, as Amanda, is wise beyond her years. Her brain “doesn’t contain feelings”, she says, and she spots Lily’s insecurities a mile off. She is in therapy but her worldly intelligence masks a danger that you can’t quite put your finger on. In contrast, Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily, is deeply disturbed. Her prim and proper speech and exquisite posture is all a show-off; she prides herself on her social status.Lily’s mother (and by proxy, her too) has married into the wealth of Mark, and he exploits this. Indeed, Paul Sparks carries the perfect balance of sexist traditionalism and self-interested sense of worth. He’s a complete bastard, truly. But wisely, there is an ambiguity that lingers in the air. Lily’s mother is rarely seen and, when she is, there is the impression that Mark emotionally, at the very least, abuses her. None of this is explicit and there is enough room for further assumptions. Even to the point of re-watching the film entirely and imagining the events are all in the mind of Lily; her judgements visibly playing out and dominating the film.
But Thoroughbreds is by no means an actor’s dream gig exclusively. Erik Friedlander’s percussive soundtrack is akin to the jolting tones of Get Out. It’s disorientating and adds a primitive undercurrent as these animals act out, with the dominant predator taking out the weaker prey. Anton Yelchin, in his final film, is clearly playing a weak lamb for slaughter. He adds heartfelt humanity to a minor role that could be dismissed as a small-time hood. In that respect, it’s a shame Yelchin isn’t more integral to the narrative itself. He is sweet, but corrupted and believes he isn’t the sleaze-ball he actually is.
Thoroughbreds is an assured debut from a young filmmaker. Creepy, carefully constructed and expertly executed, it will welcome you into the house but it toys with your trust and messes with your expectations. There’s a sense that affluence and excess knows no bounds and, if you’re rich enough, you think you have the power to do anything. Maybe, and this is the real fear, with enough money – you can.