“Dark and twisted” doesn’t quite capture the biting nature of Thoroughbreds, the debut feature from writer/director Cory Finley, but it’s a good place to start. His look at the relationship between two upper-class sociopaths is pretty damn close to pitch black in the sense of humor on display. It’s also delightfully, perversely fun.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) has a razor-sharp mind combined with a near-complete lack of emotion. After an incident involving a horse, she’s isolated from everyone except an old friend from childhood, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy). What Amanda lacks in emotion, Lily more than makes up for it – she feels way too much. Among the chief stirrers of her emotions as of late: her hateful stepfather, who’s planning on shipping her off to boarding school. When she confides in Amanda that she thinks of killing him, Amanda’s interest is raised, and the two begin plotting on ways to make Lily’s dreams into reality.
In spite of its abbreviated runtime, Thoroughbreds is a bit of a slow-burning story, which is likely to test the patience of its audience. But the film rewards that patience by revealing surprising layers to Amanda and Lily. For all of her lack of emotion, Amanda works with a sense of conscience with the choices she makes, while Lily’s more innocent-seeming nature hides other dark secrets. Cooke and Taylor-Joy have both proven more than capable with their previous film and TV work (Bates Motel for Cooke, The Witch and Split for Taylor-Joy), and they’re terrific paired together.
Also factoring into the story is Tim (Anton Yelchin), a drug dealer and sex offender who finds himself caught up in Lily and Amanda’s plan. In spite of his work and status, he manages to engender more empathy than the girls. Yelchin, in the final film he shot before his untimely death, imbues Tim with a fragility that is manipulated by Amanda and Lily.
Thoroughbreds builds slowly to a conclusion that’s surprising, largely shot in a single take that’s impressive in its creativity and restraint. It’s a well-earned climax that’s fascinating to observe, and one that’s undercut ever so slightly by the film’s decision to go past the scene for even a few minutes. Even with the additional material, though, Thoroughbreds is a sharp debut from Finley. He’s a creative talent to watch.