Thoroughbreds (2017) Movie Review

By: Christian Harding (A Toast) –

“It’s only weird if you make it weird.”

If there’s one lesson we must all learn from the last year and a half of living through this particular period in American history, it’s that actually caring about other people and what happens to them is a sign of weakness, and that empathy gets you nowhere in life. Accumulating mass amounts of wealth can buy you almost anything – some would argue happiness itself being chief among them – but you simply can’t buy genuine feelings or emotions, no matter how much money you have. By association, if you insist on solving all of life’s most burdensome problems by throwing copious amounts of wealth at them, then deeply felt personal connections might also elude you.

Social commentary such as this and more populates the delightfully twisted dark comedy Thoroughbreds, the debut feature film by playwright turned filmmaker Cory Finley, who displays a firm, disciplined understanding of film language and aesthetics rarely seen in a first-timer. If anything, Thoroughbreds fulfills the role of this generation’s Heavenly Creatures, albeit less sensitive in its tone and significantly de-gayed (the queer elements are still there, but take the form of subtext and unspoken sensuality, where it actually works stronger in this case). It also occupies the same sub-genre of “emotionally detached, upper class young women try to get away with murder” that last year’s Lady Macbeth did, though this one accomplishes its goals in a much more organic and satisfying manner. One more way in which Thoroughbreds achieves even greater depth is by having the obvious sociopath at the center of the film ironically being the only truly good, morally consistent person throughout, amidst a sea of two-faced schmucks and false friends. Eat the rich, indeed.

A Toast

The setup is as follows: Thoroughbreds centers on a pair of affluent young women, named Lily and Amanda. These two were formerly best friends back in their middle school years, but grew apart for initially unexplained reasons, which likely have something to do with Lily’s emotional neediness and Amanda’s naturally flat, seemingly emotionless affect. Upon their reunion, Amanda notices that Lily has a rocky, unconformable relationship with her new stepfather, to which Amanda suggests that Lily take care of the problem herself and eliminate him from the picture for good, which Lily is understandably horrified by… at first (dun dun DUN).

In order for a story such as this to become believable and maintain credibility, you need a cast full of talented young performers to help bring the material to life in a convincing way, and Thoroughbreds is no slouch in that department. It’s reported that this was the final film that young actor Anton Yelchin filmed before his untimely death back in the summer of 2016, and seeing his strong performance here further proves what a raw talent he truly was and how big of a loss to the film community his death was. Yelchin plays the role of Tim as an ambitious, but pathetic drug dealer who finds himself unwittingly caught up in Lily and Amanda’s murderous plot, and the role he ultimately fulfills (or doesn’t) in the final scheme of things is both satisfying and amusingly consistent with his character.

But of course the real stars of Thoroughbreds are leading ladies Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke as Lily and Amanda, respectively. Anya Taylor-Joy has continually proven herself to be one of the freshest and most exciting new talents to grace the silver screen in the last couple of years, and her role in this film is no exception, as Lily’s overly proud exterior merely being used to shield a fragile, vulnerable soul underneath is consistent within Taylor-Joy’s wheelhouse as of late. Here’s hoping she isn’t about to get typecast so early in her career, but for now, watching this young actress’ career blossom before our very eyes has been one of the greatest pleasures that independent cinema has offered us this decade.
But in spite of Anya Taylor-Joy’s reliably sympathetic talents, it’s Olivia Cooke’s performance as Amanda which is Thoroughbreds‘ greatest creation. Olivia Cooke has been good in plenty of other films and television series beforehand, but her role as the deeply disturbed yet oddly sympathetic Amanda displays an amount of range and a mastery of subtle, understated emotion that surpasses most other actors of her age group. Amanda gives off an ice cold affect on the surface, but silently yearns for a more substantive human connection from her newly rekindled friendship with Lily, which manifests itself in a number of comically uncomfortable early interactions between the two.
Among the most immediately striking aspects of Thoroughbreds and truly one of its strongest assets is the aforementioned spectacle of watching Lily and Amanda work off one another, as they complement each other in such creative fashions, with each one being in possession of vital characteristics the other one clearly lacks. Amanda is emotionally unavailable and possibly mentally ill, but she rarely lies or misleads anyone and is also deeply devoted to Lily, despite being completely unaware of the fact that her near total absence of emotional engagement leaves her incapable of consoling her only friend following the death of her father, no matter how hard she “tries”.
Conversely, Lily is more psychologically sound and seemingly well-rounded from an emotional standpoint, but she lies frequently and is more prone to taking advantage of those around her, regardless of whether or not she truly cares for them. Their… erm, “unique” friendship was never meant to last, and Thoroughbreds gets a lot of comedic and dramatic mileage from the constant back-and-forth these two are inevitably doomed to repeat whenever they attempt to reconnect. Not only that, but the constant flip-flopping between which of these two is the “femme fatale” du jour and which one is the gullible socialite being taken advantage of is one of the most ingenious aspects to the film, and both its lead actresses are more than up to the task of bringing this constant tug of war to life onscreen.
Among the strongest debut features released in the last couple of years and one of the most wildly original and engaging films released during this quarter of the year, Thoroughbreds is not to be missed. At once gruelingly tense and darkly comedic, it wisely sidesteps any heavy handed moralizing about the affluence of the upper class in modern America and winds up favoring the more complicated, challenging character development.

It boasts a refreshing new talent behind the camera and also succeeds in furthering the careers of the two great actresses at its center. It’s a slick, confident neo-noir that is at once clearly indebted to genre classics like Double Indemnity and Les Diaboliqes, but also manages to be its own unique standalone creation and stands out as one of the best films released in 2018 thus far.

Thoroughbreds (2017) Drinking Game

Do a Shot: every time Amanda or Lily uses “the technique”.

Do another Shot: whenever Amanda is brutally honest and/or socially awkward.

One more Shot: each time Lily’s attitude is fake and emotionally dishonest.

Shotgun a Beer: when a carefully placed piece of diegetic music highlights the underlying sensuality between Lily and Amanda.

Pour One Out: in memory of Anton Yelchin.

About Christian Harding

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