It’s time to stop pouting over the Oscars and get hyped up for another excellent year in movies. Now that you’ve presumably seen Black Panther multiple times, start the spring off with Thoroughbreds, the most charming, arresting, and expertly fucked-up movie in quite some time.
Starring Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, and the late Anton Yelchin, Thoroughbreds is the story of childhood best friends Amanda and Lily, who reconnect as teens and comfortably indulge each other’s darkest impulses.
As the trailer reveals, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) doesn’t feel emotion. When she shares this with Lily, she notes that she does sometimes feel hungry or tired, but that she’s never experienced sadness, guilt, or anything like that. Though played stoically by Taylor-Joy, Lily is bursting with suppressed emotions; failure, insecurity, and a sharp loathing for her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), who the girls resolve to murder.
Cooke is a revelation. To call Amanda “robotic” would be to oversimplify, insulting a delicate performance that stifles emotion out of necessity but doesn’t compromise on humanity. She forges a genuine, believable connection with Lily without sneaking warmth into the performance. Taylor-Joy tells volumes about Lily through her eyes, burying it with upper-class posture and a quivering lip. As much as it unnerves her, Lily wants to be like Amanda.
Thoroughbreds is a movie that easily could have prioritized style over substance, trading actual depth of character for flashy visuals like, say, Neon Demon. Instead, under the guidance of first-time feature director Cory Finley, the film is sleek, streamlined, and enormously satisfying.
Finley originally conceived his idea as a play, so Thoroughbreds operates on a micro level. The majority of scenes are just Amanda and Lily talking in a room, communicating as much with silence and glances as they do with their words. Everything else is by design: the sterility of Lily’s home, the space between them, Lyle Vincent’s striking cinematography, and the sound — not just an apoplectic score composed by Erik Friedlander intended less to shock than to rattle — but sound editing and mixing that make you feel like your senses have been turned up to 11.
Then, of course, there’s Yelchin, in one of the last times we’ll see him on the big screen. His character Sam is a convicted sex offender (he dated a 17-year old when he was 23) and known drug pusher (he’s offering experiences!), but Yelchin brings a lightness to the role that balances the film out expertly. Inadvertently, perhaps — as Taylor-Joy pointed out at a Q&A in New York City — Sam becomes the film’s moral compass. He’s like a washed-up Charlie Bartlett with flashes of the old charm, and it’s through him that we know not to underestimate these girls.
Thoroughbreds is getting quite the release for a film of this scale, and it deserves the attention. It’s the tonal opposite of teen fare, with a killer combo of casting and execution — a film that makes you think without compromising on unbridled entertainment. In movies, that’s the kind of pedigree we need.