Film Review: Thoroughbreds is an invigorating and provocative movie

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Empathy is in short supply in Thoroughbreds, a darkly comic and unpredictable drama about two upper class teenage girls with a violent plan, writes Natalie Stendall.

The film opens with the suggestion of a murder. The victim is an unlikely one - a horse - and the savagery of the killing is revealed only later in chilling conversation.

The characters in Thoroughbreds are distinctly unpleasant. That the most sympathetic character here is a rapist and amateur drug dealer (Anton Yelchin) who makes his living selling pills at teen parties, says everything about the film’s pitch-black, sardonic tone. Teen angst is massaged into sociopathic selfishness. Self-preservation transforms into ferocious violence.

Rich, spiteful teenagers and animal murder are likely turn-offs for mainstream audiences but emerging writer-director, Cory Finley, succeeds by avoiding the pitfalls of the teen genre.

The girls make repellent choices but they are coldly calculating rather than bratty which lends the film its positively glacial atmosphere. Neither does Finley choose to fetishise their wealth in the vein of The Bling Ring or Gossip Girl but rather uses it to amplify the girls’ selfish entitlement, channelling it inward.

The film’s title and its strap line ‘good breeding gone bad’ connects their birthrights with unpredictable, flawed, volatile temperaments. Beneath its succulent, cold, dark surface, Thoroughbreds probes privilege and class.

This writing is sharp, invigorating and relevant. The characterisation is fortified by two robust performances from Ready Player One’s Olivia Cooke and Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy, in whose hands the peculiarity of Finley’s self-centred and opportunistic characters extends far beyond its compelling quirks.

Cooke’s empty and expressionless Amanda admits to never experiencing ‘feelings’ of happiness, sadness or guilt. Having learnt to emulate the behaviour of others, she is recurrently (mis)diagnosed by therapists grasping at straws. Taylor-Joy’s Lily is similarly poker-faced but with more relatable motives, hiding her anxieties beneath an unflustered, perfectly composed exterior.

The girls’ intense dynamic presents a fascinating question about the value of feelings. While Amanda’s emotional vacancy fosters contentment, Lily’s desire for happiness fuels violence. Who is the real sociopath? Thoroughbreds leaves us wondering.

It is clearly Finley’s aim to pull us deep inside the girls’ twisted mindset and he resolutely succeeds. Masterful use of sound and light suggest something monstrous about Lily’s step-father, Mark (Paul Sparks) whose lair only ever exists off camera. Thoroughbreds is intrinsically psychological, refusing to show us its moments of violence and, instead, relying on words and impressions much like a novel.

As a drama it is cold and unfamiliar. And its refusal to redeem anyone is downright delicious. This unapologetic, stylish but decidedly un-flashy approach makes Thoroughbreds an invigorating and provocative cinematic experience. Cory Finley has arrived and his career is one to watch.