A would-be waspish comedy-thriller about friendship, money, and murder, Cory Finley’s debut film Thoroughbreds is an uncomfortable piece of work, and not just in the ways it sets out to be. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a college girl without a college, having parted ways with the Ivy League and now eddying in increasingly anxious confusion whilst trying to keep up a front, hanging around the mansion she shares with her shell-shocked mother Cynthia (Francie Swift) and very rich but excruciating stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), who threatens to shunt her off to some rather less prestigious place of education. She’s paid off by the mother of her former childhood friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke) to spend some time with Amanda as her nominal tutor. Amanda has become a general pariah since she slaughtered her own beloved horse, an incident that has become something like urban legend in their affluent corner of the Earth, and she tells Lily she believes she has no actual emotional responses.
The two young women connect tentatively however, as Amanda’s astringent analyses concur with Lily’s general alienation and festering hatred of her stepfather, who in turn treats Lily like a strange and unwanted insect infestation in his house. In between zoned-out interludes of watching old movies on TV, the two women begin to plan Mark’s murder, but have to find a way to pull it off without being incriminated, as Amanda’s well-known talent for bloodletting will make her an instant, logical suspect. So the two women turn to another outcast from their hermetic world, Tim (Anton Yelchin), who fell from grace because of a statutory rape charge and now is trying to set himself up as a drug dealer to the rich kids, but who’s so bad at it he also works as a dishwasher.
Thoroughbreds tries to situate itself at the nexus of a droll, Whit Stillman-esque comedy of no manners about the rich and feckless, a vicious black comedy in the mould of Heathers (1989) where codependent outcasts try to make a world hostile to them work by bumping off its more problematic inhabitants, a film noir tribute, and a dark character portrait of people who find relief in recognising another as sharing the same state of complete and utter estrangement. It’s the latter movie that’s most interesting, frankly, thanks in large part to the three main performers. Yelchin, in one of his last performances, expertly conveys the fetid anxiety of a man who’s ruined his own life but delivers confident rants about his impending triumph as a successful top-level drug cartel boss, whilst Cooke transmits on a level close to that of bat sonar the wavelength of a distraught personality attempting to cling on to her one contact in the human world. Taylor-Joy, with her skin like polished Carrara marble, successfully plays Lily as the most equivocal figure, even as she occupies the nominal centre of the narrative. Is she really being pushed to desperate acts by the monster who dominates her and her mother and sucks up all life like an antipathetic black hole, or is she, as Mark thinks, a cruel brat who perceives everyone else as a function of her happiness?
Taylor-Joy is glimpsed at one point costumed in a fashion that shouts out to Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven (1945), a hint Finley yearns to annex a similar zone of icily neurotic, intimately homicidal drama. But Thoroughbreds doesn’t quite make it, mostly because its own poised, puckish, flippant aspect negates any sense of dark revelry or genuinely painful straits for its characters. The film begins to build a charge of tension and involvement as the two fillies put Tim under their thumb as a suitably pliable victim/tool for their enterprise, but this ends in diminuendo as he only turns up at the cavernous mansion long enough to retrieve the gun they took from him and scarper post-haste. The portrayal of dysfunction amongst the affluent is on song for the current zeitgeist, but also feels second-hand. Again, where Thoroughbreds remains interesting is when it takes its characters most seriously. One confrontation between stepfather and daughter is one of the most brutal sequences I’ve ever seen and it doesn’t involve any physical violence, only an unpeeled display of complete mutual contempt. When the real, coherent if still maniacal motivation behind Amanda’s killing of her horse is revealed – it had broken its leg, but her mother would not perform the necessary act of putting her down, so Amanda do it the best way she could with unnerving determination – we see that Amanda extends something like the same detached but certain loyalty to Lily in her own phase of distress and torment.
The main problem is that Finley doesn’t clearly answer some of the questions about his characters he poses, and this feels less a function of ambiguity than uncertainty as just who and what they are. Finley’s stand-offish direction often feels mannered, and yet cumulatively well-tuned in to a feeling of pervasive and extreme depression as played out in opulent surrounds, where the sterile, showroom-like impersonality of the palace refuses footing for the messiness of the organic entities that inhabit it, and Amanda’s statements that she has no emotions feels more like a statement of aspiration than clinical fact, the desire to be indifferent to the petty cruelties of the world. Seemingly ordinary gestures, like a husband signalling to his daughter to be quiet whilst he sneaks up to give his wife a surprise, are charged with a sense of perversion and disquiet. The very end, whilst bleak in its implications, nonetheless retains a perverse flicker of faith in acts of loyalty, the notion that even if you’re beyond hope and long merely for a safe womb, perhaps that too can serve a purpose. And some of us do want to serve a purpose, any purpose, just as others merely ask of life that it discomfort them as little as possible. Thoroughbreds feels like something that was a screenwriting draft or two away from really finding what it wanted to be, although Finley’s poise, likes his heroines, at least provides the illusion of focus and purpose. There’s something interesting buried away in there, regardless, because as Finley suggests through Amanda, feeling can be acted, but not entirely faked.