A thoroughly misanthropic trip into the dark heart of suburbia, Cory Finley’s glossy Thoroughbreds hits all the right notes to craft an esoteric, seductively sinister symphony that shocks and pleases in equal manner.
Anya Taylor-Joy, that most fresh-faced of scream queens (RIP Maika Monroe) plays Lily, the step-daughter of upper-class suburbian Mark (Paul Sparks). Thrust into the wealthy alienation of boarding school, she’s become distant and hateful – an isolated specimen of the bourgeoise. And then there’s Amanda (Olivia Cooke): a disturbed, self-proclaimed sociopath whose casual horse euthanasia has seen her put on trial for animal cruelty. Drawn together by gravitational forces of obedience, fascination, and loneliness, the pair begin to fold their flaws into the same delicate paper sculpture – ready to collapse at any moment. When Mark takes the decision to send Lily to a school for ‘troubled’ girls, they decide to plot violent revenge with the ‘help’ of sexual offender and drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin).
Thoroughbreds – what a magnificent title. It exudes wealth and privilege: directly posturing Lily and Amanda as nothing more than the sum of their parts – a mere accessory to the rich and famous. Or, perhaps, a lucky specimen of the same meaningless species as their unluckier peers. The title is also quite literally referencing the horses that feature so prominently onscreen. Finley appears to be asking us whether Amanda’s horse-killing and Lily’s murderous ambitions are that different: after all, Mark appears to live a meaningless life much like the horse itself. He works all day, then exercises all night; punishing himself by frequently juice-cleansing – extending the amount of time he has on earth in a loveless marriage. Are the two merely putting him out of his misery?
The intrigue flows, as a waterfall, through an intricate rocky maze of red-herrings and technicalities. Is Amanda actually a sociopath, or has she projected the woes of her upper-class mentors and parents onto her own psyche? Has she convinced herself of a severe illness when she was simply going through a hard time? And what about Lily – is she not the true sociopath here? Are the girls really going to go through with their plan? Is Mark a bad person? And what will the consequences be? In this way, Thoroughbreds acts like a Rorschach blot test of the audience. We should be willing the girls to stop or to get help – but, in all honesty, are we? Probably not. And what does that show us about our own sociopathic tendencies? The fact is, despite being fairly comfortable viewing on the surface, the depths of stinging misanthropy are only clear upon further reflection.
As a playwright, Cory Finley places extreme emphasis on the dialogue between Lily and Amanda to fantastic effect. The story at the heart of Thoroughbreds is that of an exceptionally fucked-up friendship. When the girls first meet, there’s a cautious animosity that belies a deep-seated mistrust. But gradually they each become obsessed with the other’s habits – probing the mental-states which have led to their murderous denoument. The way this transition is handled is naturalistic and efficient. Of course, the talents of Taylor-Joy and Cooke are central to maintaining the illusion, and they both put in committed and skilful performances as young women on the edge.
Verbal dynamite aside, the aesthetic on show here is assured and idiosyncratic. Classical and ambient muzak collides with random machine noise and static – creating a jarring, unsettling, and unique tone which suits the film perfectly. Visually, Lyle Vincent plays around with day and night – alternating between something that looks like a Sofia Coppola movie and the wild neon flare of exploitation horror. He prefers to play with long, elegant shots rather than rapidly cutting, leading to some seriously impressive takes – such as one where the horse murder is relayed in excruciating detail in front of a gigantic outdoor chessboard; or a particularly climactic scene ending in one of the year’s most striking film images. All this adds up to a deeply stylish, unsettling thriller with contemporarily relevant themes and fantastic scriptwork.
If I have one complaint about Thoroughbreds, it’s the linearity. For all the twisted ambitions of its heroines, Finley charges down a rather single-minded path of destruction, wherein the character movements are rather predictable from start to finish. There’s not really any moment where he decides to upend our expectations, or even attempt to conceal aspects of the plot arc. Part of the terrifying determination that Thoroughbreds exhibits comes from this lack of surprise, but at times it feels as if so much more could be said.
Nevertheless, by the time the credits roll to oppressively harsh dubstep, it’s been one hell of a ride: a white-knuckle journey through the damaged minds of the young and rich. Some may feel sickened by the ruinous, barbed fencing Finley puts around his ‘happy ending’; whilst others may feel thrilled. But one thing’s for sure, you can’t deny it’s been a murderous blast.
Featured image: Collider.