Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift
Director: Cory Finley
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Having no internal emotions is a difficult trait to dramatize, since as audience members, we more or less want to connect with onscreen characters, no matter how unlikeable. However, sociopathic tendencies are a gold mine for budding writer-directors searching for yet another tale of youthful narcissism run amok. Colin Finley's directorial debut, Thoroughbreds, is one such case study; the story of vacantly blunt Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and her seemingly decent boarding-school friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) who become increasingly bothered by the deplorable behavior of Lily's asshole stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). Instead of burrowing into the dead-eyed ennui at the center of his two lead characters, however, Finely instead has made something wholly contrived; full of roving Steadicam shots, purposefully off-key dissonant music cues, and glibly arch monologues padding out a short film idea into feature length. Some people have likened the film's acidic take on High School life to Heathers. A closer comparison would be a Yorgos Lanthimos film for millennials, and that's not a compliment.
The film has a deft setup, and the early moments show potential. We learn that the two estranged friends are thrown back together for SAT tutoring sessions at Lily's swanky mansion, and while Amanda's cold demeanor at first offends her more proper sensibilities, Lily soon finds herself drawn to her friend's uncanny ability to mimic human emotions. The one trait they have in common; a lack of empathy, gradually defines their growing bond as they plot to kill Lily's stepfather, who looms over the proceedings like a dickish monarch with a rowing machine upstairs and detox smoothie downstairs. There's a disturbing act in Amanda's past that overstates her psychopathy, (as well explains the film's winking title) and Lily's trip to the dark side (which includes hooking up with a scuzzy drug dealer, well played by the late Anton Yelchin) feels much too detached to fully register. Finley does gives the two actors plenty of zippy dialogue to chew into, and the chemistry between Cooke and Joy is the real deal, even if the writing itself traps them inside a misanthropic prism that keeps the audience at a distance.
As a satire about a generation immune to genuine feeling, Thoroughbreds is about as insightful as a Buzzfeed listicle about teenage depression. As an escalating slow-burn thriller, Finely cribs the faux-art house style of Kubrick and Lanthimos, but to what end? By keeping the grotesque violence mostly off-screen, is he trying to derive irony out of our lust for blood and vengeance? The real problem is no amount of showy tracking shots, jarring sound design, and exacting symmetrical framing can pull the trick of getting us to identify with characters who themselves have disconnected from the painful realities of being alive. That would have been a real hat trick. Having us be uneasily amused by youthful detachment before eventually breaking our hearts. Instead, Thoroughbreds just shrugs, chuckles, and pretends its all for show.