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Thoroughbreds: Rich Girls Gone Bad

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Early in writer-director Cory Finley’s new film Thoroughbreds, one character says to another that the worst thing a person can be other than incompetent, unkind or evil is indecisive. The character who delivers that little speech is Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a teenage girl who doesn’t experience human emotions. She starts the film as a pariah in her wealthy Connecticut town after brutally killing a horse. By contrast, our other protagonist, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), looks like a bored trophy wife in training. Though the girls used to be friends, they’ve since fallen out and Lily only agrees to tutor Amanda after Amanda’s mother bribes her.

Their relationship is standoffish at first, but Lily is drawn to Amanda’s frankness and Amanda is fascinated by the way Lily seems driven by her emotions. They’re both clearly bored by their polished, privileged lives and they push each other’s boundaries until things turn dangerous when Amanda suggests Lily should kill her a-hole stepdad. Despite their opulent surroundings (shot crisply and dynamically by cinematographer Lyle Vincent and styled by production designer Jeremy Woodward), both girls are dangerous and the film balances on the tension of how far they’ll push each other.

Given that, it’s probably odd to start by talking about Anton Yelchin. The late actor plays Tim, a local drug dealer whose bark is bigger than his bite. He is the wildcard to the girls’ steady maleficence and he recalls Michael Shannon in his somewhat manic allure. Still, the character is perhaps not quite as unpredictable as he wishes he were. Tim’s is a familiar form of swaggering masculinity, but neither Lily nor Amanda seem to find it as attractive as these characters usually do. Rather, they constantly undercut his ego, even outsmarting him in some cases. He can only play at being dangerous while these girls actually are.

Somewhat by design, Cooke has the less showy role, but she does everything she can with it. Her deadpan delivery frequently gets laughs and it takes a deceptively high degree of skill to deliver her insane lines without once letting her neutral expression crack. Perhaps her best scene comes when she describes the horse killing that left her ostracized by her peers in the first place. However, even though Joy remains largely silent during the scene, she is the one who has to carry the emotion in that moment.

While Amanda is obviously a sociopath, Lily is much more difficult to diagnose. Joy’s character looks like a starlet from some ’40s or ’50s Hollywood melodrama, all sharp, clean feminine lines and asymmetrical bouffants. One outfit especially–which she wears in the aforementioned scene–recalls Gene Tierney’s most chilling moment in the 1948 romantic thriller, Leave Her to Heaven. The similarities are, perhaps, coincidental, but as in that film, Lily’s finishing school polish makes her actions even more disturbing.

It’s hard to talk about Lily’s arc without spoiling what happens, but Joy conveys it perfectly. She’s already done some brilliant work in her short career so far, but Thoroughbreds may be her most nuanced yet. What makes Lily and the film itself so watchable is her unpredictability. We know from the beginning that Amanda has the capacity for violence, but Lily remains deliberately inscrutable for much of the film’s first half and the question eventually becomes, how far is she willing to go? Joy, Cooke and Finley constantly keep us guessing and part of what makes the film so fun is that it’s not easy to predict.

Early in Thoroughbreds, Amanda tells Lily that her inability to experience human emotions means she has to “work a little harder” to be good. That proves true as the film goes on, but it’s the reverse–that a person who feels human emotions has to try hard to be bad–that’s actually more frightening. On some level, Lily and Amanda are only able to explore the extent of their badness because of their wealth and beauty. Yet the girls would be just as deluded as Tim if not for their commitment to do whatever it takes to get what they want. That is the true source of evil in Lily and Amanda’s world. Morality means nothing in the face of unchecked desire.

Rating: 8.5/10

Thoroughbreds in theaters nationwide March 9, 2018

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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