Feelings, or rather the lack of them, are at the heart of Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds. Set in a luxurious but lifeless suburb, this clinically cool, blackly comic thriller chronicles a friendship between upper-class teens Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and sociopathic Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a character that admits she experiences no feelings whatsoever. That doesn’t make her a bad person, she claims – she just needs to try a little harder to be a good one.
This precisely written and directed debut is a dissection of the twisted relationship between the two girls, and their mission to murder Lily’s vile stepfather (played by Paul Sparks). Despite only a 90ish minute runtime and a tiny cast, Thoroughbreds packs a lot of punches; the setting may be lavish, but there’s minimal self-indulgence. Exploring the characters’ personalities and motivations is Finley’s primary goal – he’s not so much interested in what terrible things Lily and Amanda do, but why they do them. This is reinforced in his repeated decision not to depict brutality on screen, instead making it all the more menacing by leaving any violence almost completely to the viewers’ imagination.
Cooke is chilling as the straight-faced sociopath, but her performance gives Amanda a naïve edge that means you can’t help but warm to her. At one point, she teaches Lily her ‘technique’ for fake crying, but later in the film can’t spot real tears; she even attempts an awkward hug to seal their strange friendship. Amanda’s actions are mostly indefensible, but not committed with bad intentions. Taylor-Joy is perhaps outshone overall, but convincing as the restrained good girl with something far more savage underneath.
And, there’s a poignancy to Thoroughbreds in that it gives us the late Anton Yelchin’s last role. His greasy drug dealer Tim is a wrong’un, no doubt, but Yelchin’s sincerity in his portrayal as someone from far less privilege than the two girls makes him a surprisingly relatable source of humanity that’s hard to find elsewhere.
Finley is a playwright, and it shows in his direction; the dialogue-heavy scenes are the most involving, and there’s a very clipped, rehearsed feel to the film that emphasises its cold and callous tone. There’s not much depth to this first feature, but it still works – it feels more like a deliberate and effective reflection of the people and place it depicts, rather than an oversight in terms of storytelling.
Thoroughbreds is a bleak insight into a wealthy, white teenage world where truly good people seem hard to find, but it isn’t entirely heartless. Push past the thoroughly nasty exterior, and you might find that a central duo who seem devoid of feelings entirely end up leaving the viewer far more in touch with theirs.