Starring Anton Yelchin and Anya Taylor-Joy. Rated R.
Sparse and unsettling, Thoroughbreds does a lot with very little.
Beginning with a shadowy scene of butchering a horse, the movie sets the tone of the piece: a cold, affectless ride through the lives of inordinately wealthy and wicked-smart teenagers Amanda (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s Olivia Clark) and Lily (Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy). Reconnecting over SAT tutoring, the duo spiral deeper into entitlement and callousness, unable to see outside of their claustrophobic friendship and concerned only with how to best improve their lives. Their solution, as hinted by the film’s opening tableau, is murder.
There’s plenty to commend the movie—not least first-time film director Cory Finley’s strong decision to build the plot around two off-kilter female leads. The pair’s emotionless, detached dialogue has none of the over-acted effusion that typically characterises women-led films, and—almost unheard of in a movie about teenage girls—there’s no mention of boyfriends. Men in this movie are literally dispensable, and dispatched without any hint of the femme-fatale archetype. Transcending gender norms and refusing to sexualise its characters, Thoroughbreds is a breath of fresh air.
Making a movie about two likely-psychopaths and a supporting cast of equally detached individuals, though, has its limitations. No matter how intriguing the pair’s relationship first appears, it’s hard to hold an audience’s attention with 90 minutes of onscreen disengagement. The characters are too cold—not just Clark and Taylor-Joy, but step-father Mark (Paul Sparks of House of Cards and The Greatest Showman fame) and unnamed mother Francie Swift. The late Anton Yelchin, starring here as Tim, offers a taste of farcical relief, but his choice to represent himself as a pantomime gangster means it’s hard to feel sorry for him too.
Finley gets it half right. Yes, it’s important to represent adolescent girls’ rich interior thoughts and desires on-screen—all of which extend beyond a supposed obsessions with boys, periods, and pimples. Unfortunately, when their brash murder becomes a reality, it’s just too self-involved to move the audience to care. Finley might have flipped the typical narrative arc of violence against women, but he fails to make the effects of that choice resonate.