Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke are two rising young stars who get to play a couple of wicked teenagers in writer/director Cory Finley’s debut feature Thoroughbreds. It is quite an assured production for a debut filmmaker featuring intriguing characters, stunning cinematography, and a score that gets into your head.
Taylor-Joy plays Lily and Cooke is Amanda, two wealthy teenagers who were friends as children, but have since grown apart. When Amanda’s mental health comes into question after she brutally slays her family’s horse Honeymooner, her mother hires Lily to tutor her in hopes of getting her back into school. Lily at first puts on a good-girl façade, but Amanda sees right through that and taps into the darker side of Lily’s personality lying shallowly beneath the surface.
It is unclear whether or not Amanda is joking when she suggest that Lily could murder the stepfather she hates, but it certainly plants the seed in Lily’s brain. Resistant at first, Lily tests the waters somewhat by sabotaging his bicycle. But when her stepfather continues to push her, she questions how serious Amanda was about the suggestion and the plot is off and running from there.
Cooke and Taylor-Joy each deliver excellently creepy and fascinatingly disturbing performances that stretch to the border of believability, but never cross over it. Cooke plays the complete opposite of the good-girl character she has mostly portrayed to date in shows like Bates Motel and as the titular dying girl in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. We are told that her Amanda is psychologically void of any emotion and she pulls that off nicely. Taylor-Joy essentially gets to play two characters: the goody-two-shoes rich girl ready for an Ivy League University and the bored rich girl fascinated by and ready to explore the darker side of her personality. It is when she merges these two characters into one as the film progresses that her performance becomes extra creepy.
Supporting the two stars is Anton Yelchin as a local drug dealer named Tim whom they lure into their dangerous game. The performance unfortunately proved to be Yelchin’s last, following the actor’s untimely death in June of 2016. It is a shame, too, because despite having limited screentime, his performance as Tim is just another reminder of how talented this guy was and a suggestion of the many great roles he probably still had in him.
The real star of Thoroughbreds, though, is Cory Finley. This is an incredibly assured film for any filmmaker, let alone one making his feature debut. As the writer, Finley has created two fascinating characters who are intriguing to watch from start to finish and whose unpredictable actions make for some clever twists throughout the film. As a director, Finley’s tells the story in a visually fascinating way that feels reminiscent of the late, great Stanley Kubrick. The long tracking shots and symmetrical framing successfully put the viewer on edge. And he finds interesting ways of keeping the many dialogue scenes from feeling stale by using interesting settings, such as when he has Cooke playing a giant game of backyard chess while the two girls make their plans. Finally, the percussive score by Erik Friedlander also keeps the audience on edge by being so in your face at times, making it all that more effective when it vanishes for a few crucial scenes.
Where the movie loses me a little is that it never seems to do enough to set up its “villain.” The stepdad portrayed by Paul Sparks is a pretentious jerk, for sure, but the movie stops short from having him be so horrible that we as the audience might want what happens to him to happen to him. There is also one line of dialogue that really stuck in my craw and that is when Amanda tells Lily that “we are only going to do this if it is the right thing to do.” This seems like faulty logic for a character that has suggested an action that would never be “the right thing to do.” And finally, it seems unlikely that the events of the film would hold up under forensic scrutiny.
Thoroughbreds is a twisted dark comedy with two great young leads that keeps the audience guessing at just about every turn and I appreciated it for that. The movie’s brisk 92-minute running time flies by and before you know it, you are outside the theater trying to wrap your head around what you just saw.
Thoroughbreds is now playing at the AMC Southcenter 16.