There is a point early on in the film where Olivia Cooke’s Amanda character wanders through an overly sized, immaculate mansion and comes across a photograph of a small girl on a horse with a beaming smile. She stares at the picture blankly and then turns to the nearby mirror and mimics the smile on command. Her face goes slack almost immediately, and she travels through the house again, completely emotionless.
It’s a sign of what is ahead in Thoroughbreds, the debut feature of writer and director Cory Finley. It’s the story of two disconnected friends coming back into each other’s lives, somewhat out of favor, and somewhat out of curiosity. This leads toward a murder thriller plot that feels right for these characters and continually throws their dynamics into play as they become involved with a sleazy drug dealer along the way.
Thoroughbreds is a great work of the thriller genre, with a black comedy heart at its core. It is smart and slight, knows when to hold on and when to let go, and knows how to deploy its characters in exactly the right ways.
Cooke is the standout of the film, whose performances in earlier films and on A&E’s Bates Motel showed her exceptional work in using her eyes to express her emotions. Here, she is a blank slate, completely void of emotion in any shape or form, and so playing against what came before comes as quite a surprise, especially with how well it works. The way she nonchalantly offers up murder plots gives honesty that is cruel and cold, and stares at nothing, in particular, is a different kind of character, and not normally one of the main protagonists.
Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as well, playing at first a stable and poised character named Lily, who over time shifts into something different. The walls the character and Taylor-Joy break down over the course of the runtime is another sign of her great range, and she continues her work from The Witch and Split as a genre actress who picks great projects.
There is a give and take to all of the characters in the movie: Amanda and Lily’s relationship is a back and forth of barbed words and uncomfortable uncertainty; Lily’s relationship with her step-father, whose disdain for her and her increasingly erratic responses create the main conflict of the film; and, briefly, Amanda’s mother, who has to pay double to get her daughter tutoring lessons with Lily, and also immediately expects something bad when receiving a phone call about her daughter. It’s these glimmers of dysfunction to each character interaction that brings wonderful performances to their unique conclusion.
One of the best parts of the film is Anton Yelchin, in his final performance. His character is a burned-out drug dealer, whose high hopes and dreams, that heat multiple times wax over, becomes an unfortunate reminder of the actor’s too-soon passing. But the role is both fun and a quick shot to the movie, adding some color and some great lines. His awe and wonder as he travels through the same house that Cooke’s character had traveled through at the beginning of the film is completely different and works to his character.
The score is excellent, eerie and almost cold in its sound, which adds to the characters and reaches crescendos based on the emotional levels being reached. But it is most effective in how it’s not used at all times, Finley knowing when to use silence, or even faint noises a level above in the house, to give the right atmosphere to the scene.
It is also in knowing when to use score and silence that Finley also knows when to hold on certain scenes. Mundane scenes of wandering through a house, waiting for a Skype message, and waiting for a text message, become riveting because of their meaning and what the character is really waiting for. The subtext is what drives these moments and makes for a much better film than other movies of its type strive to be.