For the past few months I’ve had my eyes on a neat looking little film called “Thoroughbreds” which premiered in January of 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie is finally in theaters after circulating production companies and distributors and now we get to bath in its quirky glory. Penned and directed by first-time filmmaker Cory Finley, “Thoroughbreds” has been praised on nearly every level, but does it truly deserve the love? Time to take a closer look. Here is my review of “Thoroughbreds”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Thoroughbreds” takes place in suburban Connecticut where two young ladies rekindle their friendship after years of avoiding each other. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) suffers from a unique unspecified mental disorder that prevents her from feeling any emotion whatsoever making her cold, honest and crass but also unflinching. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the exact opposite. A gifted young intellectual, Lily feels everything including hatred for her dry and emotionally abusive stepfather (Paul Sparks) and lives a luxurious life funded by her stepfather in a mansion. Together the two women conspire to kill the stepfather employing the help of a young drug dealer named Tim (Anton Yelchin in his final role) to get the job done. The name of the film is derived from the concept that people are like horses and that some are so broken and “messed up” they add nothing to the world and need to be “put down”.
As with most artistic films this movie works using a small cast comprised of three main characters and a few side characters that are part of their lives. The main duo are played by Anya-Taylor Joy and Olivia Cook as exact opposites, the ying and the yang so to speak, that balance each other out. While Cooke’s Amanda is brutally honest and unphased by how her actions and revelations impact people Taylor-Joy’s Lily feels everything, including emotional pain and undying hatred, to the extreme. While Amanda is shown to be an exception to the world around her Lily is made out to be the norm and while Amanda is the strong, sensible one Lily is more rash and aggressive.
Cooke and Taylor-Joy are amazing together, capturing a truly believable chemistry despite their characters being literal opposites of each other. Cooke is a standout, having appeared in only a few roles including busts like “Ouija” and “The Quiet Ones” before appearing in this movie. She is also going to be part of “Ready Player One” so we’ll see how she does there. Here however she truly shows her stuff, barely presenting any emotion and keeping a pretty consistent character even in moments where even the best of actors would have broken and shown at least something. I waited the whole movie for her to bend and crack, and while she comes close at points Cooke turns in a truly mesmerizing performance perfectly emotionless and unfeeling. Even then for a performance meant to be very dry Cooke somehow comes off as likable and charming, deceptively so in some cases, despite her less than acceptable behavior. She is able to do so much while showing so little. It’s performances like this that challenge actors and actresses to control who they are to a T and Cooke shows she can stand with the best of them and turn in something great.
Anya Taylor-Joy, well known for other artistically shot films like “The Witch” and “Split”, is just as mesmerizing as Lily, a girl who feels everything. This could have been a character brought way over the top, but once again we see an actress who can keep things controlled and level while still fully capturing the extremes of her character’s personality. She’s brutal in her own way and despite being set up as the person we’re supposed to kind of like, Taylor-Joy makes Lily complex and troubled and actually challenges us to wonder whether or not we’re routing for the right person. Taylor-Joy has proven before that she can tackle complex leading roles and ones that are aggressive and subtle at the same time. She proves it again here and if it’s not too bold to say I believe this performance, along with her other characters, proves why she is one of the brightest and most talented up-and-comers in the industry and deserves more credit than she gets sometimes.
The other main character in this film is Anton Yelchin’s Tim. It’s the final on-screen appearance for the late actor who died in 2016. Yelchin adds something special to this role without making Tim out to be just another dumb drug peddler. He’s a man who tries to have balls and attitude but is ousted as nothing more than a fraud too big for his own shoes when he is tasked with helping the film’s main pair do their dirty murderous deed. Tim is part of the comic relief of this thriller and while there is an argument that his character is kind of pointless in the grand scheme of things, he does serve his own purpose in driving the film’s third act. Yelchin does enough to shine for a small third-party character, but not enough to outshine the movie’s stars which is a good thing. Like everything about this film, Yelchin’s performance is controlled and committed in its own special way and it was a joy to see this late actor who was gone too soon shine so brightly in his final film appearance.
Pretty much everything. Well, not really everything but there’s very little wrong with this film as you’ll read below. “Thoroughbreds” is a truly fantastic first offering from director and writer Cory Finley and is part black comedy, part insightful thriller that makes you think, but not enough to be pretentious. The contrast between the two main characters is a mesmerizing aspect of this movie, allowing us to see two extremes play out on screen and we actually get to watch them compliment each other rather than work against each other the whole time. There have been movies that explored mismatched pairs and teen violence before, but nothing like this film in a long time and it does it in such an artistic and tasteful way I couldn’t help but be fully engrossed in everything taking place in the story. It’s funny, thrilling and unpredictable and that’s just scratching the surface.
A beautiful thing about this film is nothing goes to waste. Every tracking and establishing shot. Every line, every interaction, it all plays into the subtleties of the story and the mindset of the two leads making it feel unique and smooth. It’s a story that can be taken at face value or interpreted to be a striking criticism of the human species in general. In fact, in a pretty dark way, “Thoroughbreds” actually justifies killing and murder in certain situations using a metaphor comparing humans to horses to drive home a well thought out idea. As the two main characters concoct a plan to kill someone they feel unworthy of the air he breaths the metaphors and one liners keep coming almost as if they were directed at the audience themselves but are presented as exchanges between the mismatched young women through well-scripted dialogue. In this way, the movie doesn’t beat you over the head with its message, it actually builds it into the growth and development of the characters, so nothing feels forced or out of place. It’s all a tight knit, well thought out and flawlessly conceptualized tale that makes you chuckle and cringe at the right times and sometimes at the same time.
I can’t say enough about the presentation and depiction of the characters on screen. I know I touched on a lot of it in the acting section, but it bears repeating that these women, Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, bring to life two young women that represent some of the best and worst of the human condition. The symbolism built into the two characters and the commitment of the two leads gives us two of the most complex female figures to hit the big screen in a long time, and we’ve seen some great women on the screen recently too so that’s saying something. If nothing else these two ladies and the women they bring to life are worth the price of admission and once you add the magnificent script and dialogue and the brutally honest look this film takes at humanity in general into the mix you have a movie that might fly under the radar but shouldn’t be overlooked.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
It’s been a while since I’ve had such little to say in this section…like I’ve never had this little to say in this section since I started this format of my review. However, although “Thoroughbreds” is a great movie it has one glaring flaw. The film’s depiction of the ease of the decision to murder is not only dangerous, but in the case of Anya Taylor-Joy’s character Lily at least feels pretty forced and out of left field. I mean you expect that from Amanda, hell she even brings up the idea, but not Lily. She rebuffs it at first, but then turns around rather quickly with minimal convincing from the world around her to take on the challenge. For the most part this film is very well balanced, but this one aspect of the movie, the turnaround of one of its main characters to suddenly be so ready to commit a heinous crime, felt a bit out of character even for a woman who feels emotion to such an extreme. To some extent it’s rather unconvincing, at least compared to the rest of the film. It’s a small flaw that is ironed out pretty quickly, but it’s a glaring one that, if approached with the right critical eye, can make “Thoroughbreds” feel a bit convoluted. It’s far from enough to earn this film anything but praise from me but it is a blemish that needs to be mentioned here.
I loved this movie. I can’t sugar coat it. I loved every minute of it. “Thoroughbreds” packs absolutely astounding presentations of two fleshed out characters representing two emotional extremes from a pair of actresses that are quickly making a name for themselves. It’s balanced by great supporting performances, a meticulously written screenplay and script, and an artistic approach that allows it to stay true to itself. It offers effective moments of levity and great dramatic tension and, in many ways, serves as a creative and highly original critical look at humanity and the human condition. It’s enough to make you wonder what is better, to feel it all or to feel nothing. There are benefits to each, and dangers to both and that’s just one of the major concepts that make for a fantastic movie. You can take it as it is or dig a little deeper, but “Thoroughbreds” offers something for everyone regardless of how deep you’d like to go. If this is what we can expect from Corey Finley, Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy I can’t wait to see what any of them do next.