★★ / ★★★★
Cory Finley’s first feature film “Thoroughbreds” is a black comedy so bleak and straight-faced that it is likely to be mistaken for a thriller. After all, it involves a plotting of a murder by two former friends, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), recently reunited at the end of their final year of high school to study for college entrance exams. The latter is notorious as the girl who killed her family’s horse and she is now awaiting sentencing for animal cruelty. It is a daring project, which may work for some due to its occasional bouts of originality, but looking at it as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. Certainly its tale is not as fully realized as it should have been.
Nothing more can be asked of Taylor-Joy and Cooke because they play the characters with moment-to-moment intriguing vivacity. They manage to sell every line even though a handful of them sound like dialogue in a play. They are in command of how their characters express themselves, how they take up space, how they approach challenges or what they perceive to be challenges. The problem is, I think, the screenplay, the manner by which these characters lack a requisite arc in order for the story to come across genuine and for the audience to feel some sort of satisfaction when all is said and done. I felt no emotional connection to it, let alone emotional investment.
We are provided a template that Amanda is the unfeeling half, completely foreign to a range of feelings like happiness, sorrow, regret—some might say the very elements that separate humans from animals. Lily, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: too feeling, sensitive, consistently apologetic even during her moments of honesty. We are excited for how might the two will clash and complement one another during their conspiracy. I enjoyed that it tackles the question of how two people who lack empathy might relate with one another. Keeping their natures in mind, we dissect which emotions are real and which are convincing fabrications.
The heavy-handed dichotomy shoves the viewer in a state where one notices immediately things that do not quite belong. Despite the solid portrayals of Amanda and Lily, it doesn’t appear that they exist within a convincing environment. For instance, during intense exchanges between the girls, we hear a line or two that sounds like it should have been uttered in a play rather than a movie. It knocks us off-guard.
Although the scene recovers, the distraction is consequential enough for us to look away from the focal images and toward, for example, the presentation of a kitchen—not just how it is spotless, but also in how it appears to never have been used. Untouched utensils begin to look like props. Is the faucet even connected to a water line? The set looks like a set and we are reminded of it repeatedly. This is bothersome because the story unfolds indoors most of the time. There is an overall fragility and artificiality here that is alarming when one thing looks or sounds out of place—enough to take one out of a would-be intense experience.
I have always stated that dark comedy requires surgical precision. While an above average effort as a whole and some elements do work, “Thoroughbreds” is perhaps a kind of story that a filmmaker ought to make after he or she has made three or four strong films. Still, I admired writer-director Cory Finley for attempting to bring a challenging piece to life and so I look forward to his next project. I am convinced there is at least one great movie in him.