The line separating thrillers and horror films is razor thin. In the case of Cory Finley’s feature debut, Thoroughbreds, the former fits more suitably than the latter, but to take a page from Potter Stewart, I know horror when I see it, and Thoroughbreds toes that line with macabre confidence. The film isn’t particularly frightening, but makes up for that with suspense to harrow the soul. Thoroughbreds rattles us by pitting posh cultivation against human nihilism: When you’re scared, you tend to be scared in the moment. When you’re rattled, there’s no telling how long you’ll stay that way. That’s Thoroughbreds in a nutshell: A sobering, beautiful movie that’ll haunt you for weeks after watching it.
Lily (horror queen ascendant Anya Taylor-Joy) is the epitome of high breeding: Impeccably dressed and made up, unflappably well-mannered, academically accomplished with a bright future ahead of her. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is her polar opposite, a social outcast, friend to no one, possessed of a barbed tongue and a caustic temperament. They’re childhood chums who became estranged from one another over years, an everyday occurrence spurred by an incident involving Amanda’s family horse and an act of casual butchery. That all happens in the film’s past tense. In its present tense, the girls reconnect, Lily acting as Amanda’s tutor, and as they do the latter begins to rub off on the former and draw out her dark side.
Don’t mistake Amanda for a monster, per se. Cold as she is, she’s amoral rather than straight-up evil, and further to her credit the feelings she brings out in Lily are pre-existing. Turns out that Lily has a troubled relationship with her stepdad, Mark (Paul Sparks), meaning she harbors secret fantasies of killing him. After we make first introductions, we understand why: At best he’s aloof, and at worst he’s patriarchal bordering on abusive. (“Bordering” here is generous. Any number of proclamations he makes to Lily could be qualified as emotional abuse.) Usually you’d expect your former BFF to judge you, and judge you hard, for admitting that you’d kinda sorta really like to bump off your dad. Amanda, for all her faults, not only spares Lily her scrutiny, she shows understanding, too.
When you’re a determined sociopath, understanding is a tricky thing, less the product of empathy than mathematical logic. Mark is a bastard; Lily’s life is made harder by Mark and his bastardly ways. Remove Mark from the equation and Lily’s life improves, so Amanda endorses her desire to murder Mark and together they start plotting the perfect crime, Hitchcock style. They plan. They scheme. They even hire muscle, a wannabe drug kingpin named Tim (Anton Yelchin), which is just about the worst name for a tough guy dope dealer this side of “Bob.” All the while their bond strengthens day by day as they move closer toward their endgame. Think of Thoroughbreds as Heathers by way of a Park Chan-wook film, and you’ve pretty much got its tone and atmosphere down.
This is a movie about friendship couched in aberrant behavior, of course, so buying into the idea that Lily and Amanda are bonded at all is easier said than done. But Finley, Taylor-Joy and Cooke work overtime selling their work, and especially selling the notion that if Lily and Amanda don’t have what most of us would consider a normal relationship, their relationship is no less real or meaningful. In many ways, it’s more real and meaningful than most. How many people can look their besties in the eye and point out all of their flaws without stirring up drama? Lily and Amanda enjoy a rare and admirable type of honesty. Grant that their honesty is fuel for their darkest impulses, whether they’re considering Mark’s death or using Tim, the film’s most sympathetic character, as a pawn. Grant also that their honesty is true, and truth is worth quite a lot in a world shaped by appearances.
Lily and Amanda’s grim candor is couched in limited settings, primarily the grand house Lily lives in with Mark and her mother, but Thoroughbreds’s sense of confinement is a necessary component for its success as genre. This is a tightly crafted movie about tightly wound people restricted by authoritarian control. Lily, at first robbed of her agency, evolves over time from subservient to dominating, no longer content to follow the whims of others and newly focused on her own desires. We see the change in her play across Taylor-Joy’s face as she sheds layers of upper crust grooming as easily as we hear the earnestness in Cooke’s cutting deadpan.
Finley creates a space from which they can both break out, a gorgeous veneer akin to limbo. Within reason we can’t blame them for wanting to escape. It’s the method of escape that sticks with us. Finley does a lot with very little apart from the raw talent of his leads. If this is what he’s capable of as a first-timer, we should rightfully dread his follow-up.
Director: Cory Finley
Writer: Cory Finley
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift
Release Date: March 9, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.