Thoroughbreds (USA; 2017) is written and directed by Cory Finley, his first feature film. It began life as a play, but, as Finley was writing it, he told the audience at Fantastic Fest, he realized that he was seeing parts of his story cinematically. So Thoroughbreds became a film starring Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Lily, and Olivia Cooke, who plays Amanda.
Lily and Amanda are two wealthy former friends (sort of) finishing up high school in Connecticut. They are thrust together when Amanda’s mother pays Lily to tutor her. From beginning to end, the film is about the two girls’ relationship, which flourishes under Amanda’s relentless unconventionality and honesty, as she pushes Lily to be more honest about herself. It doesn’t take long for Amanda to learn that Lily hates her stepfather (Paul Sparks). Does she have reason to hate him as much as she does? Maybe. The film goes to the brink of portraying him as abusive, possibly to Lily, possibly to Lily’s mother, but it stops short and we wonder if maybe he’s just a rather run-of-the-mill jerk. Either way, the amoral Amanda suggests an unthinkable plan to Lily, and the plot then takes a dark turn, wending its way into increasingly unexpected terrain.
Here is Finley talking about the film:
Thoroughbreds works so well because it brilliantly debunks what the viewers think they know. In the beginning, Amanda seems not only honest and utterly unconcerned with rules and morality, but possibly psychopathic, something her therapist has apparently toyed with as a diagnosis (along with Borderline Personality Disorder): she says herself that she is unable to feel emotions. Amanda is defined not only by her brutal matter-of-factness but also by a brutal crime—the slaughter of her horse—that the opening scenes obliquely show (though we don’t know it at the time) and that she later describes to Lily in excruciating detail. The killing, the dispassionate way in which Amanda describes it, and her apparent inability to care about anything at all shape a picture of Amanda in the early parts of the film that viewers are challenged to re-think as the film progresses.
Similarly, Lily is presented at first as sweet, smart, and utterly conventional—exuding a fragile vulnerability of which Amanda seems to take advantage. But is Lily what she seems? Like Amanda, she changes during the course of the film—or, I should say, she is slowly revealed to be something else.
There is another violent crime near the film’s climax, one that mirrors Amanda’s violent act at the beginning of the film. These two crimes, neither of which appears on the screen, are not what they appear to be. Just as Amanda and Lily may very well not be what they appear to be.
And in the midst of it, the brilliant Anton Yelchin plays Tim, a small-time drug-dealer hoping to hit the big time. He gets caught up with Amanda and Lily, and his relationship with them is as thoroughly up-ended as the girls’ relationship to each other.
Thoroughbreds is a tour-de-force of acting, writing, and directing. It trades in the very realistic horror of things never being what they appear to be, in our inability to trust what we think we know, twisting all of our assumptions and preconceptions. And Cooke, Taylor-Joy, and Yelchin are all fantastic in revealing both the unreliable surface of their characters and what lies underneath.