BY EMMA MARTIN ’20
“Do you ever think about just killing him?” Amanda (Olivia Cooke, “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl”) asks her kind-of new friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”) in a memorable scene from psychological thriller “Thoroughbreds,” the feature debut of writer-director Corey Finley. As Amanda casually uncorks a bottle of wine, the two teens first discuss the main subject of the movie — their plan to kill Lily’s stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks, “The Greatest Showman”). The two become closer as the movie progresses, but not as friends. Instead, the girls are accomplices fatefully tied together in a dangerous game that transforms them into unlikely villains.
Set in suburban Connecticut, the story of “Thoroughbreds” takes place on a satirically grandiose scale. When Lily suggests to Amanda that they steal some of Lily’s stepfather’s alcohol, the girls go to a cavernous wine cellar that’s ripped straight from the pages of “Architectural Digest.” In another scene, Amanda plays chess in the garden on a massive stone chess board while telling Lily the gory details of the crime that got her expelled from school, the larger-than-life game foreshadowing what’s to come. The movie’s central crime itself is also disproportionate; Lily’s stepfather Mark is comically despicable, but the audience wonders whether he really deserves to die at the hands of two posh baby-socialites with tentative grasps on reality.
“Thoroughbreds” shines brightest through its barely there soundtrack, which succeeds in building tension with every scene, despite its minimalism. Solitary instruments accompany long shots that take time to establish an ominous mood. In the opening shots, a sleek car approaches a beautiful house to the sound of a steady drumbeat. Finley understands that, for this particular story, the sparse accompaniment of a single violin note is much more potent and unsettling than anything more elaborate.
Cooke and Taylor-Joy’s performances are generally impressive. Their staunch delivery of smart dialogue is hilarious during scenes with Tim (Anton Yelchin, “Star Trek”), a drug dealer who Amanda and Lily try to blackmail into committing murder, but can feel forced at other moments. Yelchin’s honest portrayal of Tim provides a welcome break from the girls’ chilly exchanges with each other. Tim, thankfully, does not fall into the role of a romantic interest that is expected in a movie with two female leads. He’s an unsavory character with a sex offender background, providing a stark contrast to Amanda and Lily’s prep school upbringing. Amanda sees through his abrasive, invulnerable manner as does the audience when Amanda easily manipulates Tim.
On the surface, “Thoroughbreds” doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that 2018 needs. Viewers wonder why they should care about two white “Thoroughbreds” committing crimes they’re not expected to be punished for when movies like Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and others are breaking ground. However, “Thoroughbreds” is interesting and distinctive in the way its stark sound and composition strip away the gilded exterior surrounding two isolated teens. Finley allows viewers to feel for Lily and Amanda’s chilly, dull existence, yet the audience can never truly sympathize with nor understand them.