Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME got all the big-time attention this week, but the film to see this weekend is Cory Finley’s THOROUGHBREDS. This new thriller that the first-time filmmaker wrote and directed is sly, sleek, and dark, delicious fun. It also gives two of the best young actresses working today – Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy – a chance to shine in a two-hander that conjures up the spirit of classics like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and HEAVENLY CREATURES.
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) used to be BFF’s while growing up rich and privileged in Connecticut. One of their passions was horseback riding, but those days are long gone now. As the film starts, Amanda is no longer allowed near stables since she committed a gruesome mercy killing of a horse. That act landed her on a psychiatrist’s couch and far afield of Lily’s social calendar. Meanwhile, Lily has had her own problems. Since her mother remarried, the teen has not gotten along with self-absorbed stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks) one single day. Lily also has some issues with her schooling and seems to be unhappy with the rest of her pampered existence.
Amanda’s mom thinks her daughter could benefit from reconnecting with Lily and decides to pay Lily to tutor her daughter hoping they can be friends again, as well as get her back on track for school. But despite all the head-shrinking, Amanda is hardly ready to return to the posh, East Coast lifestyle. She’s down-in-the-mouth cynical, brutally honest, and brazenly aware that she’s practically a sociopath. Yet, that doesn’t turn off Lily. In fact, it jazzes her because it’s like a hot knife cutting through the cold butter of her daily existence.
The more time they spend together, the more their friendship does blossom again, but not in the loving and socialite way that Amanda’s mom hopes for. Lily realizes that she’s just as antisocial as Amanda is, and welcomes her friend as the match to light her fuse. Soon, the two misanthropic teens are talking trash about all in their lives that is hollow and unsatisfying, as well as those they hate. At the top of the list for Lily is Mark, of course, and reading between the lines, Amanda suggests that their lives would be better if they killed him.
From there, the two begin determining just how they could make that happen. The girls contact a local miscreant named Tim (the late Anton Yelchin’s final screen appearance). He’s a shady punk selling drugs to high school kids and more than happy to taste other wares there too. When they put forth their proposition of payment for a fake robbery and real murder, the wormy Tim wiggles off the hook. He’s all talk and leaves them high and dry. After that, the two girls must find other means of accomplishing their goals and ensuring that Tim doesn’t blab about their nefarious plot.
Sure, Finley creates an intriguing game of “will they or won’t they” here, but he’s more interested in exploring the intricacies of these twisted girls and their friendship. As the story progresses, we discover, along with Amanda, that Lily is really the one who’s the most deviant and dangerous. And Finley persuades that if the two had never gotten back together, they might have been able to be moral and upstanding individually. But together, they are a lethal combination, doomed to help destroy the other. It may take a village to raise a child, but one errant friend will help you burn it all down.
Taylor-Joy has impressed with stand-out performances in one quirky film after another, excelling in indie hits like THE WITCH and SPLIT. She’s especially good at playing her emotions close to the vest, but here she’s expressing more prominent feelings. Her Lily wants to be what is expected of her, but deep down, she cannot. Lily is angry, brittle and seething with rage, albeit impeccably tailored with all the proper accessories. (She’d make the perfect trophy wife for Patrick Bateman!)
Cooke has gotten trapped in some less than stellar horror films lately, most likely due to her five seasons on BATES MOTEL, but she deserves far juicier roles. (BTW…she played the sweet as pie ingenue on that series!) That’s why it’s so fantastic to see her getting to stretch so here, playing droll comedy as the oddball Amanda. Cooke barely blinks and keeps a blasé expression on her face almost the entire film as a character who has trouble feeling empathy, or anything for that matter. Yet, within such confinement, Cooke finds lovely nuances of humanity. Her Amanda may be homicidal, but the girl is still a rollicking good time.
Still, the majority of praise here must go to Finley. He comes from the world of the playwright, and that accounts for his sharp dialogue and vivid characterizations. Yet he’s a natural filmmaker too. His camerawork, sound design, editing, and underscoring are equal to directors with three times his experience. His camera set-ups are unique and often askew to add to the tension. And sometimes he even places his camera a smidge too close to his actors, all the better to ensure we’re made uncomfortable so up close and personal with the characters’ evil. Other times, Finley frames the exquisite settings to look like expensive prisons – stodgy and sterile. He is a superb artist and showman, suggesting a bright future in the movies if he wants. Indeed, as talent goes, this artist is already a thoroughbred.