Thoroughbreds, the debut film from writer/director Cory Finley, is a master class in tone. It succeeds as a drama, a thriller and a dark comedy. Filled with dread, the audience still finds itself laughing at the malevolence of its characters and feeling a little guilty that they did so. It was the first film I saw at Fantastic Fest 2017, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s the best film I see at the festival.
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) has been away at boarding school and accepts a summer gig tutoring Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a childhood friend with whom she hasn’t been close in years. Amanda is clearly psychologically disturbed and was involved in some type of frightening incident that resulted in the death of her horse. The details of these two ladies’ lives gradually unfold on screen, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more dangerous. The narrative reaches a full boil when the two young women enlist the help of a local drug dealer (Anton Yelchin) to commit a murder.
The film rises and falls on the performances of its two lead actresses. Anya Taylor-Joy confirms the promise that she showed in Robert Eggers 2015 film The Witch. From her physicality and posture to the quality of her gaze, Taylor-Joy creates a multi-faceted character that at once begs our sympathy while simultaneously repelling us. Is she truly mistreated by her step-father? Or is this a simple case of suburban malaise? Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance keeps us guessing until the final minutes of the film.
Her co-star, Olivia Cooke, is equally captivating. Amanda admits right up front that she’s been diagnosed with every psychiatric condition imaginable and has learned how to fake emotions on command. Is she being genuine? Is she deceiving Lily? Cooke’s performance begins on a sullen, world-weary note and then humanity begins to bloom in Amanda just as it’s fading away in Lily.
The immersive score by Erik Friedlander creates an atmosphere of foreboding. The deep rumble of kettle drums, the plunks and thuds of hand percussion and the moans of atonal chord progressions (played mostly on the cello by the composer himself) sets the audience’s nerves on edge. Simply watching Lily striding through her home to the groans of the dissonant score fills the most innocuous of actions with a sense of danger.
At its core, Thoroughbreds examines the prices we are willing to pay to be comfortable, the tendency to “settle” when it comes to our day-to-day happiness. Whether it’s material greed or simply a desire not to be alone, we make compromises everyday to attain some amount of what we consider to be joy. Lily’s mother is trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who verbally abuses her. She stays because the man who is the source of her unhappiness is also the source of her financial success. Throughout the film we hear the stepfather’s rowing machine rumbling from the upstairs of the house. It’s as if he is literally keeping the machinery of their suburban dream churning. As one character tells Lily: “The sawdust may smell really nice, but you’re still on a hamster wheel.”
It’s been 24 hours since the credits rolled at my screening of Thoroughbreds, but I find my mind returning again and again to its characters and its story. I look forward to my second viewing. You should look forward to your first. It’s one of the best films of 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.