Director: Cory Finley
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks
Plot: When high school student Lily (Joy) tutors emotionless Amanda (Cooke), the pair of them strike up a plan to kill off Lily’s stepfather (Sparks).
There is something particularly frustrating about an interesting story told in an off-beat way. Thoroughbreds, when boiled down to its basic premise, sounds like a cracking thriller. Two wealthy young girls strike up a friendship (one albeit forced together by their mothers), discovering about each other’s personality disorders. Amanda is unable to feel emotion, currently awaiting trail for animal cruelty after euthanising her crippled childhood horse. Lily’s personality disorder is more subtle, to the point where the film doesn’t properly directly reference it. However, she does suffer from a lack of empathy. While she is clearly an emotional girl, she doesn’t quite register the emotions of other people, her lack of empathy reducing the people around her (classmates, parents, Amanda), to tools at her disposal. The girls, despite their mental instability, strike up a fragile friendship, formed more out of curiosity of each other than anything. Amanda, whose lack of emotions makes her very good at observing and mimicking feelings, soon learns that in Lily’s household, there is an underlying hate between her and her new stepfather, a rich asshole who likes controlling those around him, something that doesn’t sit well with Lily’s own obsession with control. Amanda goes on to suggest that all of Lily’s problems would be solved if they were to murder her stepfather, launching them into the crux of the story. As they begin to plot the crime, they drag in Anton Yelchin’s hapless local criminal/aspiring businessman and begin playing a very dangerous game.
On paper, it sounds like a cracking crime thriller that any movie fan would love to sink their teeth into. A dysfunctional family unit with a couple of personality disorders elevating the story and adding a new flavour to proceedings. However, the problems start with how Cory Finley wants to tell this tale. For one, his background is mainly in theatre and that is painfully present in the proceedings. This movie takes a long time to get off the ground, because the opening of the film is predominantly Olivia Cook and Anya Taylor Joy in a house together, diving into lengthy monologues and discussions. It would likely be enthralling onstage, as we slowly learn about these two characters and what makes them tick, but in a film, the single set and long asides about nothing much whatsoever, begins to drag the story down into the realms of boredom. The movie definitely improves when it opens up the perspective of the story, especially when the charismatic Anton Yelchin starts grabbing some screen-time. The greatest compliment I can give the unfortunately late actor is that he is a definite injection of adrenaline to the piece. Sadly, the film cannot quite sustain the energy he adds to the story. Thoroughbreds is a very artsy piece, also. While the thriller fans would be game for another jolt to the story arc, Finley is more concerned with another lingering tracking shot or interesting piece of cinematography. For a time, artsy works: the score is a nerve-tingling, off-beat collection of music, which, for a time, makes Thoroughbreds more thrilling than it actually is. However, in searching for the arthouse, Finley lets his story slide to the side. Thoroughbreds is in desperate need for a few more surprises and twists. The adventure unfolds naturally, never bothering to take any twists and turns. The middle of the film takes up the two girls slyly manipulating Anton Yelchin’s criminal character. This is probably the best part of the film, because the three lead characters collide, their personalities sparking off of each other, interestingly. Again, this is usually the best pit of a theatre production, so it is definitely the part of the film where Finley feels most comfortable. However, arguably, this part of the story has little bearings on the action as a whole. This leads to the film awkwardly stumbling to its finish. There are a few little quirks along the way, like Lily’s motivations for the murder coming into question and a partially surprising finish. But, like most theatre, the less is more approach is used frequently, meaning that Thoroughbreds, while likely an amazing play, just doesn’t have the same oomph in cinema. Almost every strand of story ends up feeling painfully unsatisfying, because it concludes quietly, rather than loudly. Thrillers should build up into a crescendo of a climax, not peter out as Thoroughbreds arguably does.
What this movie does do very well is showcase the acting talents of the two lead girls. Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor Joy are rising stars in the acting world. Anya Taylor Joy has made a small living out of playing the off-beat heroes in indie films, such as the Witch. Olivia Cooke also has a string of indie hits to her name, namely horrors such as Ouija and The Quiet Ones. They are a great choice for Thoroughbreds, perhaps one last foray into this level of cinema, before rising to the realms of mainstream (Cooke has already starred in Ready Player One and Taylor Joy is due to appear in the X-Men franchise as soon as the movie leaves post-production). Anya Taylor Joy has the showier job, as the emotionally-wrought Lily. Her large eyes are put to good use, as she often plays the role on the verge of tears, trapped in a situation out of her hands. Olivia Cooke has the harder job, delivering the part of Amanda in a monotone drone, yet giving it meaning. There is something gripping about the character that grows on you as the movie moves on. Perhaps the emotionlessness of the character adds to the problem that not a lot is happening early on, but as the pair of them grow on you, there is an interesting shift in who the ‘nicer’ character is. Amanda feels like the creepier girl, her lack of emotion and ease of suggesting murder moving her into the realms of manipulative villain. But much like a Spock of the teenager age, her lack of feelings makes her a good source of logic, as the girls descend into planning murder. Meanwhile, Lily begins to realise how much easier she can solve her problems by embracing the role of the bad guy. Even when the movie fails to grip you as much as it should, fault cannot be put on the twin performances. If anything it makes the film’s lack of excitement all the more annoying, because these two would have made wonderful protagonists in a fully-fledged crime movie.
Final Verdict: A decent plot, but told with an emphasis on the smaller details, rather than the big moments, which overall hurts the experience.