‘Thoroughbreds’ Wonderfully Disquieting

4 STARS—Dir. Cory Finley

Thoroughbreds Still
Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy in Thoroughbreds, directed by Cory Finley.

In the imperfectly perfect world of Connecticut royalty, even lawn mowers bleat eerily. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) arrives at her old classmate Lily’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) immaculate mansion for an SAT tutoring session, which sounds innocuous enough. If Amanda’s insouciant slouch and beady gaze don’t hint enough at her interiority, she explains herself outright: “I don’t have any feelings, ever.” Oh, and she is awaiting trial for animal cruelty after brutally slaughtering her prized racehorse. A prim and proper Lily silently acquiesces to a life that her detached mother (Francie Swift) and her hyper-functional, super-controlling stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) dictate for her. Lily’s conveniently rekindled friendship—if one could call it that—with Amanda becomes a prelude to their criminal partnership in murdering Mark. For the most part, director Cory Finley manages a tantalizing and artistic balance in dwelling on tidy surfaces and revealing the stifled motivations beneath them. Though sometimes he withholds so much for the sake of the film’s air of heady mystery, skimping on depicting Lily’s crucial emotional backstory.

Finley admirably and perceptively enhances the viewer experience by drawing on many cinematic devices of alienation. The cinematographer, Lyle Vincent, works with aptly eerie transitions, using slow and dizzying pans to blackness, accompanied by gurgling noises from Mark’s erg machine upstairs. In one scene, Lily, in search of her mother, walks through a hallway that Vincent casts in a luridly, strikingly blue tint that hints at the underlying uneasiness her perfect updo doesn’t. Lily and Amanda watch several 1940s films in Lily’s cavernous parlor, and the campy musical numbers enacted on the fuzzy gray screen are disquietingly removed from the girls’ sterile, modern reality. Finley also employs a wonderfully strange and cacophonous soundtrack of knocking and strumming percussive noises, of whinnying and whimpering, to contrast with the silence Lily and Amanda wade through in the opulent spaces of Lily’s home.

Finley orients his audience in Amanda’s world and inscrutable mind with effectively interspersed, and not excessive, signposts. The first shot of the film shows Amanda gazing steadfastly into her horse’s eyes, presumably before she kills him. The camera later briefly pans around her bedroom, to horse portraits and competition trophies and ribbons strewn all about her walls. In an SAT pamphlet, the camera adopts Amanda’s laser-focus fixation on the word “horse.” Even if Finley doesn’t explain what horses have to do with anything, he makes it clear she’s obsessed with them, which makes for a satisfyingly mysterious bit at the end that suggests the psychological nature of her affinity. And thanks to Cooke’s perfect deadpan, Amanda’s self-proclamations are simple but effectively bemusing: “I have to work a little harder than everyone else to be good.” She possesses a different sentience in her emotionless state, somehow seeing more clearly with her penetrating gaze: She announces to Lily, after Mark leaves the room, “Wow… you hate him. You despise him.”

But Finley never sufficiently reveals the fury brimming beneath Lily’s surface: She never erupts, even privately, and emphatically enlists Amanda’s help in committing the murder only after her stepfather expresses his wish to send her to a school for girls with serious behavioral issues. She does, however, slowly take on the steely mannerisms of Amanda—eating her peas and staring into the distance, unblinking. Finley doesn’t get to the heart of Lily’s interpersonal problems, or her personality, except for when Mark characterizes her explicitly: “In your brain, all these people are little offshoots of your consciousness. We’re all your maids.” His tidy appraisal of a character whom Finley hardly explicates beyond her conditioned self-denial, conveniently precedes Amanda’s sober observation: “Empathy isn’t your strong suit.” The bitter encounters between Lily and Mark are indeed strung with tension, but do not have the pointed hostility or build-up to make her violent reaction triumphantly vindictive, especially because her emotional past is only hinted at in a passing mention of her recently deceased father.

Amanda’s nonchalant posturing does come to a head: “The only thing worse than being incompetent or being evil is being indecisive.” All this time, she’s been training Lily in the art of decisiveness, and Lily must choose to act. The crime scene is rendered with Finley’s restraint and innovative aesthetic indulgence with plenty of disquieting aural stimulation, and Taylor-Joy’s unnerving acting shines. Finley does the challenging work of sustaining Amanda’s mystique and of forcing his audience to puzzle over how to morally assess Lily. The film’s quietly disturbing aesthetic and fascinating character arcs make for a thoroughly bewildering, addicting watch.


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