(This review contains spoilers.)
Two girls in suburban Connecticut get up to no good in the devilishly dark and sleekly entertaining neo-noir Thoroughbred. This is the feature debut from young playwright Corey Finley, who adapts his own play here and who combines a gift for tart and taut dialogue with a natural cinematic flair that heightens the drama. Though the plot reins aren’t kept tight enough in the last act to really let audiences feel the story’s sting in the tail, this is nonetheless an impressive calling card for Finley and another showcase for the talents of contemporary scream queens Olivia Cooke (Ouija, The Quiet Ones) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), who both relish their roles as possibly amoral characters living in an indifferent world of luxury. Anton Yelchin, in what was his last role, also impresses as the small-time dealer and registered sex offender who becomes ensnared in their web of deceit.
This is one of those genre films that feels familiar in terms of its plush setting and its story setup — two possibly bored young women, one of whom has already killed a horse once, dream up the idea to kill someone they don’t like — that critics and audiences alike will be able to come up with long lists of possible influences, from 1990s guilty pleasure Cruel Intentions (itself in turn inspired by de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons) to Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Clouzot’s Les Dialoboliques. What matters in these kinds of films is whether the execution is convincing and in that department, Thoroughbred convinces, especially in its first two acts.
Lily (Taylor-Joy) hates her stepdad, Mark (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire), even though it is his money that makes it possible for Lily and her widowed mom (Francie Swift) to dwell in the old-fashioned and well-appointed mansion in which they live. After he’s suggested that she will go to a school for girls with severe behavioral problems instead of the college of her choice, and that that’s non-negotiable, something snaps inside of her.
When the film opens, a childhood friend, Amanda (Cooke), has come to visit Lily so they can revise for exams together, though Amanda already knows that her mom has paid Lily to “hang out.” By combining the film’s enigmatic opening shots with tidbits of information, it emerges why: Amanda has become something of a social pariah after having killed a horse.
It is that traumatic event, no doubt, that has led her to believe she doesn’t have any feelings and that she’s just always play-acting her emotions so other people don’t think she’s weird. Her dream is to skip college and “Steve Jobs” her way through life, and it’s clear Lily is morbidly fascinated by the renewed acquaintance of her strange childhood friend.
The duo’s initial conversations are often of the passive-aggressive kind, with both sides initially hiding things and testing the waters. It is here that Finley’s background as a playwright is most obvious, with the dialogue-heavy, back-and-forth interactions perfectly executed by the actresses, who manage to sneak in some dark humor into their exchanges as well. Much of these scenes are edited in shot/reverse-shot rhythms, a straightforward cinematic technique here chosen to highlight how the two, each the focus of their own shot, are testing each other out but not yet reaching out and how quickly the pace of their conversations escalates, with each trying to outdo the other.
After the idea of killing Mark is coined, two-shots of the pair become more frequent as they grow closer and confide in each other. A pivotal scene in which Amanda explains the how and why of her horse killing is staged very skillfully, with Amanda in the background moving gigantic chess pieces (including the knights, natch) on a huge board in the sumptuous garden and Lily in the foreground, letting the information sink in and gradually connecting it to her own desire to inflict a killing.
Thankfully, Finley isn’t only adept at writing and directing good dialogue but he also understands how images and sounds can enhance his story. The steadicam shots of talented cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) turn Mark’s mansion into an ominous place, while the menacing rumble of the rowing machine of the master of the house, which is never seen but frequently heard, is a constant reminder of Mark’s presence and of how Lily feels about her stepdad. A sparingly used and occasionally atonal score from Erik Friedlander further enhances the sense of eerie unease.
How the women rope the unsuspecting lowlife Tim (Yelchin) into their plan to off Mark is a pleasure to behold, and a scene in which the duo cunningly get him to admit whether or not he owes a gun demonstrates how they’ve become like-minded creatures. But the storyline involving Tim doesn’t quite have a satisfying payoff and there’s a sense that by the fourth and last chapter of the film, the story has lost some of its fascination and grip on the viewer. What is lacking is a sense of inevitability that pushes the characters and story forward as well as a sense of impending doom, whether or not the girls will be discovered.
Cooke and Taylor-Joy are clearly enjoying playing these two faux-innocent bad-girl characters (they may dress like angels but certainly don’t behave like them). Though the film finally remains more of a neo-noir genre item than an actual psychological thriller, the girls’ conversations about the sense and worth of their lives do ring true as the kind of teenage philosophical mumbo-jumbo that can push a teenager in search of an identity to do real bad things. And in yet another self-effacing performance, Yelchin, complements the duo with his schlubby take on a young man who’s adrift but not afraid to dream real big. As the other male presence, Sparks thankfully doesn’t overplay Mark’s odiousness, ensuring that it is clear that he, like the girls, is a potential victim as much as a villain.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Production companies: June Pictures, B Story
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift, Kaili Vernoff
Writer-director: Cory Finley, screenplay based on his play
Producers: Kevin J. Walsh, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks
Executive producers: Ryan Stowell, Ted Deiker, Declan Baldwin
Director of photography: Lyle Vincent
Production designer: Jeremy Woodward
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Editor: Louise Ford
Music: Erik Friedlander
Casting: Doug Aibel
Not rated, 86 minutes