by Jamie Brown
I can’t imagine why sociopathic tendencies would be a relevant talking point in America right now, but they are a central theme of Cory Finley’s thriller Thoroughbreds, originally written as a play, now adapted into a deliciously nasty movie debut.
Thoroughbreds; Director: Cory Finley; Festival strand: Official Competition; USA 2017, 91 mins; Our Rating ★★★★/5
Somewhere in wealthy Connecticut, two former childhood friends are reunited as teenagers when the mother of troubled Amanda (Olivia Cooke) pays model student Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) to tutor her daughter through her SATs. Amanda’s problems, however, run a lot deeper than failing at school; having just brutally disposed of a family horse without it leaving a mark on her, emotionally speaking, she is sceptical of her ability to feel a human response. Amanda is smart, self-aware, perceptive and, thanks to those empathy issues, mercilessly honest. This allows her to quickly break the defences of the uptight Lily and bring equality to their rekindled relationship. What we don’t know is where on the spectrum Amanda lies; is she merely antisocial/unsentimental, or does the horse incident suggest she’s capable of worse?
Amanda instantly twigs Lily’s distaste for her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), and, after talking her into admitting it, suggests to Lily that they plot his murder. A horrified Lily initially distances herself from her friend, but when Mark breaks some unwelcome news about her further education, the seeds planted by Amanda begin to dangerously sprout. The two friends partner up for real and attempt to enlist local scumbag Tim (Anton Yelchin, in his last role before his untimely death) into doing the deed.
The story is told in a four-chapter structure, precision-trimmed at 91 minutes, and the script keeps the audience on its toes, subtly shifting between being engagingly wordy and disturbingly silent. The first half in particular contains some wonderful dialogue, wickedly dark and deadpan. Combined with an atonal soundtrack that is used with irregular frequency, the results are genuinely unsettling. It’s also a beautiful-looking film, and the director seems just as adept at visual storytelling (those horses get everywhere) during sequences when the dialogue is more sparse.
The two young leads, respectively English-born and English-raised, are superb. Cooke, skilfully hiding her native Oldham accent, gets all the best lines and delivers them with a hypnotic absence of expression, then creepily breaks the spell with Amanda’s fake smiles fired at the mirror. It is Taylor-Joy who steals the show though (again, after doing the same in The Witch), using her ballet-trained elegance to give statuesque poise to the girl hiding so much alienation beneath her prim-and-proper layers. The way that Taylor-Joy lets them slowly unravel is exquisite. The way that Finley films them is really smart too, mostly in separate shots until they begin acting as a partnership, after which they are often shot together. One scene in which the girls work together to stitch up Tim is a delight.
Thoroughbreds feels very well balanced, being both artistically interesting and accessible; something it probably takes from its influences. One of a number of outstanding set pieces is a scene in which Amanda confesses the horse-related details to Lily with eerie calm while moving the pieces on a giant outdoor chessboard. It’s pure Hitchcock, as is the film’s key scene, which features an audacious long take of a sleeping Amanda. The plot is reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s cult favourite Heavenly Creatures or 1950s French horror Les Diaboliques. It’s not quite a psychological thriller or a genre piece of any kind, it’s more of a very effective weird and bleakly comic drama with an indie sensibility that steals from very well-chosen sources.
This balance works well for the film right up until the ending, when it perhaps turns into indecisiveness, delivering a pay-off that is neither crowd-pleaser nor enigma. But this shouldn’t detract too much from what is an assured and exciting debut.