This was one of my most anticipated films of the year for the plain, simple reason that Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke and Anton Yelchin were in it. I watched a trailer at the end of last year and read a brief synopsis but other than that, I went to see this film purely because those awesome actors were in it – I just saw the names and thought “Sold!”
The story concerns Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a young woman who claims to be devoid of all feelings and emotions, and sees her receive tuition lessons from her former childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), soon learning that Lily is being paid to spend time with her, on the wishes of Amanda’s concerned mother. Lily is a girl from a very wealthy family who is currently struggling to cope with the presence of her brutish stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) and Amanda casually remarks that they could kill him; though initially reluctant, Lily soon decides to make the plan a reality when she learns that Mark is scuppering her college plans and enlists the help of drug dealing ex-con Tim (Anton Yelchin) to do the deed.
Starting off with the whole reason I went to see the film in the first place, the cast of Thoroughbreds is small but effective, the main selling points of the movie as I knew they’d be. In particular, Olivia Cooke ( who is on a very promising career path following Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Ready Player One) is quite something as the mysterious and emotionally repressed Amanda; she is a unique, intelligent and magnetic character who sometimes appears deranged, damaged and dangerous but in her own way, she’s also very often the voice of reason as she clearly thinks things through and, when it’s implied that she heartlessly killed her family’s horse, it’s revealed that she was simply trying to do the right thing. Cooke very effectively keeps all eyes on her throughout, keeping us guessing what’s going on inside that head of hers and she is quite possibly the film’s MVP as she suits the role perfectly and clearly relishes the darkness of the character, giving a performance that is careful, calculating and slightly sinister but also with hidden warmth as we begin to feel the strange connection that she has with Lily.
Alongside her, demonstrating another strong career trajectory following The Witch, Split and The Miniaturist, Anya Taylor-Joy is just as good as Lily, who starts off guarded and careful, making a special effort to be nice and considerate but who, after suffering in the presence of her stepfather, becomes increasingly cold and calculating as she goes down a dark path when she tries to kill him; hers is a subtle and nuanced performance and she believably shows her character’s inner turmoil as things go wrong for her. Both of the young actresses are great together on screen and what’s interesting is that Cooke’s character starts off emotionless but shows signs of change at certain moments, while Taylor-Joy begins as a likeable enough sort, trying hard to make an effort, but learns to be a bit more emotionless just like Cooke’s Amanda.
The late, great and dearly missed Anton Yelchin also does well in his role of ex-con Tim, a dodgy kind of character (though with some hidden warmth) with some pie-in-the-sky dreams who finds himself roped into the girls’ plan. Yelchin yet again shows that he was more than capable of taking on some mature roles and he fits nicely into the film but, even though circumstances may have deemed this impossible, it’s a shame that he didn’t play an even bigger part in the narrative. And lastly, House of Cards‘ Paul Sparks is great as the nasty stepfather, managing to be a suitable antagonist without being over-the-top or cartoonish at any point.
What Thoroughbreds does well is creating an odd and unpredictable atmosphere thanks to its mysterious characters as well as its effective score and intriguing filming style. The music of the film goes a long way in making the film compelling as it slowly creeps into the conversations between the two girls, heightening the mystery and unpredictability, and overall making Thoroughbreds quite creepy and dark. The disconcerting, ominous and continuous sounds of Mark’s rowing machine (it’s a major reason why Lily wants to kill him) also work incredibly well within the context of the story, building up the tension impressively.
Debut director Cory Finley also makes sure that there are some interesting things happening with the camera, using long tracking shots that often follow directly behind the characters and framing the two main actresses in several intriguing and compelling ways and his story is unique and should be applauded for never going in an obvious direction – with this film, you never really know what’s going to happen next. It’s reminiscent of the works of Yorgos Lanthimos as the characters are cold, distant and sometimes monotonous and the story is dark and twisted with a surprise or two at the end.
But even with the stellar cast and effective indie/arthouse style, I still felt as though something was missing. Personally, I think that I must have missed the overall point of the film, perhaps only taking it at surface level, and that the overall meaning may very well have flown right over my head. I’d say that the film is about how human beings, in this case the rich and well-off particularly, may pretend to be polite and civilised but it’s all just a front, all fake, so maybe emotions can sometimes hold us back and being cold and emotionless can help out once in a while. But as I say, although I appreciated this film, it didn’t have much of an impact on me and it’s not going to be a film that I’m likely to remember for very long and it’s nowhere near as darkly funny as it should have been to be considered a dark comedy. Thoroughbreds is quite possibly more complex than it needs to be but at the end of the day, I probably just didn’t “get it”.