Review: 'Thoroughbreds'

Friday, March 9, 2018

Dirty Pretty Things

2017 / USA / 92 min. / Directed by Cory Finley / Opens in select cities on March 9, 2018

by:
Andrew Wyatt

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy were born to be film actresses. Certainly, many performers of their generation can claim both sizable dramatic talent and the sort of strange, striking beauty that sets fashion photographers swooning. What make Cooke and Taylor-Joy truly stand out among their cohort is how specifically and spookily attuned their acting is to the medium of cinema. The marvelous things they can do with minute changes in facial expression wouldn’t be as effective on the stage or even on the most lavish home-theater system. Their countenances veritably demand to be projected 30 feet high, so that the psychological skirmishes that unfold silently in their enormous brown eyes can be properly appreciated.

Writer-director Cory Finley, in his startlingly self-possessed debut feature, Thoroughbreds, has crafted a delectable, darkly comic showcase for this remarkable pair of actresses. The fresh-faced Cooke and Taylor-Joy are 24 and 21, respectively, but they’re wholly convincing here as a pair of older adolescent WASP princesses, fidgeting their way through the summer in a sinfully wealthy Connecticut exurb.

Once upon a time, Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) were middle-school friends, but they slowly grew apart — perhaps pushed a bit by the fine-grained class divisions in their posh little corner of the world. Abruptly and awkwardly reunited after years of friendship atrophy, Lily has agreed to help Amanda prepare for the SATs, an arrangement that plainly holds little interest for the latter teen. Amanda peppers her putative tutor with disarming, Sherlockian observations and blithely declares that college is worthless because she’s going to be the next Steve Jobs. (Amanda barely seems to believe this offhand boast herself; rather, it’s as if she’s daring Lily to scoff.)

Superficially, Lily is the Good Girl in this brunette dyad, a proper, polished china doll with a touch of wolfish Wall Street ambition. Meanwhile, Amanda has matured into an acerbic, self-aware sociopath. She asserts that she doesn’t experience emotions as others do, although she has become quite accomplished at mimicking such feelings to blend in among “normal” humans. The tutoring scheme has been arranged by Amanda’s mother, who is evidently desperate to secure some sort (any sort) of companionship for her troubled daughter — particularly in the wake of an unspeakable act of violence that Amanda inflicted on her own thoroughbred riding horse, an incident that has set the rumor mill buzzing.

Unfortunately, the uncanny, disconsolate electricity that sparks between the girls has the opposite effect of what was intended. Amanda’s snide amorality awakens a similar facet of Lily’s personality, who confesses to a fuming hatred for her cruel, high-handed stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). He controls both the family’s wealth and Amanda’s meek mother (Francie Swift), and he is already formulating a scheme to send Lily away to a distant, disciplinary boarding school. Pilfered wine is swigged, self-destructive games are played, one things lead to another, and suddenly the uneasily reunited friends are talking elliptically about how one might theoretically get away with murder.

Thoroughbreds is a film about empathy — and the devouring void that arises in its absence — and to that end, the lead actresses’ talent for cinema-geared performance is essential to the feature’s success. A goodly chunk of the film’s psychodrama concerns Lily (and other characters) attempting to puzzle out what Amanda is really thinking beneath the maddeningly blasé mask she presents to the world. (Joke's on them: Amanda almost always says exactly what she's thinking.) A lesser performer might have approached the material with either robotic flatness or purring charm, but Cooke — who often seems to be channeling early-1990s Winona Ryder in her speech patterns here — conveys her character’s inhumanity with a gentler touch. The same half-interested bluntness characterizes almost all of Amanda’s dialogue, whether she’s discussing a classic film, outmaneuvering Mark’s disdainful interrogations, or describing in graphic detail how she murdered her beloved horse with her bare hands. When other characters burst into tears or explode with rage, Amanda just watches them with dull repugnance, as though their puerile human emotions were the most tedious thing in the world. She’s all agency, but no feeling; a hollow girl.

Cooke gets all the best lines — Amanda is a master at sizing up people in a heartbeat and then dismantling them with a withering barb or two — but Taylor-Joy arguably has the more challenging role. The film’s story is truly Lily’s story, a noir-tinged farcical tragedy in which Amanda’s mere presence seems to coax the other girl’s most heartless and violent impulses to the surface. Taylor-Joy is obliged to portray Lily as progressively chillier and more ruthless over the course of the film, but she never stoops to outright mimicry of Cooke’s performance. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that Taylor-Joy pulls off with marvelous assurance. With every tearful sniff and furious tremble, she deftly illustrates how Lily blossoms into the murderous schemer she perhaps always longed to be, with Amanda acting as a kind of Mephistophelean emancipator.

Perhaps inevitably, Thoroughbreds recalls Heathers (1989), another pitch-black comedy about a privileged high-school girl who is cajoled into bloody deeds by an alluring but disturbed outsider. Finley’s feature is both darker and more intimate than Heathers, however, and unlike that film, it's not all that concerned with the absurd social dynamics and stratification of high-school life. Thoroughbreds is unquestionably about privilege, however: specifically, the warped mechanisms by which the richest of the rich unlearn basic human decency so that they can more easily acquire whatever they desire.

Cursorily, Finley’s film is intrested in quasi-mythical “natural” sociopaths like Amanda, people whose inborn emotional blankness seems to sidestep questions of good and evil entirely. (Early in the screenplay, Amanda asserts that the only feelings she experiences are “tired” and “hungry.”) Showtime’s series Dexter drolly and exhaustively explored such a creature from the inside, uncovering innumerable subsurface complications beneath the crude “nature or nurture” binary. In contrast, Finley’s film never allows the viewer to peer too deeply into the mind of its human monster; it offers some slanting insights into Amanda but no conclusive verdict. In truth, Thoroughbreds is primarily focused on the monsters that surround Amanda, the obscenely rich people who have learned (or are learning) the unruffled amorality that comes so naturally to her. It’s not an entirely original sentiment: Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) conjured a masterful film out of the one-joke conceit of a serial killer hiding in plain sight among the Ivy League finance set. Thoroughbreds is generally more arch and accessible, however, and unique in its focus on the grotesque process by which a poor little rich girl becomes a unprincipled, unfeeling woman.

In this respect, Finley’s film is a shrewdly political work, although it is foremost an acidic horror story, not a stilted jeremiad on the evils of the American aristocracy. It sharply illustrates that the seemingly limitless possibilities of wealth inevitably erode social and moral boundaries, until everything is acceptable and other people are dehumanized into utilitarian automata. (Paired on a double bill with Bennett Miller’s doom-drenched Foxcatcher [2014], the two films would make a persuasive cinematic argument for a 100 percent estate tax.) Thoroughbreds doesn’t lecture, however. It just gawks in revulsion as Westchester adults and teens alike treat one other like absolute garbage, while evincing not so much as a quiver of remorse. It’s the sort of crackling, morally gangrenous story that Nicholas Ray or Billy Wilder might have delivered, had they lived to witness the Trump Era. Mark, for all his tyrannical despicability, has Lily’s number when he observes that she floats through life regarding everyone around her as mere phantasmal extensions of her own ego. Of course, this assessment could also apply to virtually every character in the film, Mark included, not to mention several real-world public figures.

Finley’s screenplay takes some cues from the snappy, prickly dialogue of Aaron Sorkin and Diablo Cody, but his visual style is pure European art-horror, with some spatters of American playfulness. Given its themes, Thoroughbreds will almost certainly elicit comparisons to Michael Haneke’s works, especially Funny Games (1997) and The White Ribbon (2009). However, where the Austrian director’s camera is inclined to squat with reptilian patience, Finley’s prefers to glide and zoom at a glacial pace. Often, the film will follow a character in an ominous long take as they search the endless corridors and rooms of the setting's gaudy ultra-McMansions.

These methods evoke a remorseless, menacing atmosphere when combined with the feature's tremendously impressive mise-en-scéne — particularly for a first-time filmmaker — which coyly conceals information, provides witty visual commentary, and boxes characters into claustrophobic spaces. However, Erik Friedlander’s score complicates that mood in a delightfully incongruous way, riddling the film with irregular bursts of avant-garde percussion. It’s as though unseen observers are intruding into the film’s bloody-minded events with inappropriate giggling and guffaws, generating a dissonance that would doubtlessly win approval from the ever-perverse Amanda. The feature’s vigorous, occasionally hyper-real sound design is also vital to its mordant, sinister vibe — in one pivotral scene, the grating whoosh of off-screen exercise equipment effectively functions as a ticking clock.

Thoroughbreds is, by design, not a feel-good film. There isn’t a likeable character in the cast, and the closest the feature comes to a pitiable, recognizably human figure is Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), a wretched drug-dealing pedophile that the girls sweet-talk (and then blackmail) into assisting with their homicidal plans. Finley’s feature doesn’t want to be liked, however; it just wants the viewer’s full attention. On that score, it’s a wickedly engaging triumph: a peerlessly performed and directed slice of Yankee Brahmin nastiness. Its plot evokes several worthy film noir forebears — notably Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Diabolique (1955) — but its attitude is caustic 21st-century American indie through and through. Sleek, spiky, and lingering in all the right ways, it more than fulfills the formula for a good film that is often attributed to director Howard Hawks: three good scenes, no bad ones.

Rating: A-