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Film Review: ‘Thoroughbreds’

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy play rich kids with a dark side in this remarkable debut from East Coast playwright Cory Finley.

Cory Finley
Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin

Rated R  1 hour 32 minutes

Remember the name Cory Finley. The astonishingly gifted writer-director of “Thoroughbreds” is going places, which could also be said for Olivia Cooke (“Vanity Fair”) and Anya Taylor-Joy (“Split”), the two note-perfect lead actresses who star in Finley’s icy psychological thriller — a refined, upper-class riff on “Heavenly Creatures,” “Fun,” and the entire wicked subgenre in which two girls, perfectly harmless on their own, prove to be homicidal in one another’s company. That dynamic may be familiar, but Finley’s unsettling, slow-burn debut has a voice and feel all its own — like Emily Post with fangs — heralding this dark-minded dramatist as a talent to watch.

Some people are born with a silver spoon, while others go straight for the steak knives. The latter could be said of Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), childhood best friends from posh Connecticut families whose days of horseback riding are far behind them. Amanda is no longer allowed near the stables — not since a gruesome act hinted at in the opening scene (and mercifully left to our imaginations). Now that Amanda’s put in the time with the shrinks, her mother (Kaili Vernoff) thinks it’s a good idea for her maladjusted adolescent daughter to socialize a bit more, so she offers Lily a generous allowance in exchange for some easy SAT tutoring.

The girls have history, though it’s mostly just hinted at, requiring audiences to analyze the subtext of their interactions — a passive-aggressive series of challenges, coyly daring one another to push the boundaries — in order to puzzle out the dynamic between them. Both are clearly far smarter than their classmates, but they lack something when it comes to simple people skills. Amanda practically admits to being a sociopath (on different days, she’s been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, or else antisocial with schizoid tendencies), and coaches Lily on “the technique” (how to cry on cue).

Years of practice have made Amanda an excellent mimic of human emotions, though she doesn’t actually feel them. Lily has perhaps the opposite problem: She’s too sensitive, and deeply competitive to boot — traits that got her kicked out of Andover, and now seem to be causing problems with her insufferable stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), a rich jerk who treats Lily’s mom (Francie Swift) as merely his latest trophy, and Lily as an unfortunate piece of baggage that accompanies the acquisition.

“Do you ever think about just killing him?” Amanda asks one evening, as the two girls are raiding Mark’s wine cellar, while the sound of her stepdad’s rowing machine drones rhythmically upstairs. It’s an unconscionable and completely inappropriate suggestion — the kind that only someone with Amanda’s blunt, cold-bloodedly pragmatic attitude could make, although it’s just the sort of hypothetical that attracts us to the works of “Strangers on a Train” novelist Patricia Highsmith, or more outrageously, films like “Jawbreaker” and “Heathers,” whose influence can also be found lurking beneath this movie’s elegant surface.

Rather than get their hands dirty, Lily and Amanda initially try to convince a pathetic local drug dealer (played by the late Anton Yelchin, to whom the film is dedicated) to stage a robbery that might plausibly end in Mark being shot. A decade-older loser stuck on the periphery of their privileged world (which he had the chance to occupy in 2007’s “Charlie Barlett”), Yelchin’s character sells weed to teens whose monthly allowance exceeds his entire net worth, and dreams of clawing his way up to their station, though he’s essentially harmless (watch how he wimpers at the sight of his own blood), which merely serves to underscore just how twisted the two young women are.

As a playwright turned feature film director, Finley adapts to the new medium as if it was his calling all along. “Throughbreds” (whose title was singular when it premiered in Sundance’s NEXT section in January 2017) may have been overshadowed by “Get Out” at that film festival, but it’s no less elegant or lethal, concentrating its satire not on racial mind games (the way Jordan Peele did, seizing the zeitgeist in the process) but a case of blue-blood breeding gone horribly awry.

Finley originally conceived his script as a play, and indeed, the attention to language and meticulous delivery of each semi-venomous line suggest years of experience calibrating tension and timing on stage. But unlike other dark comedies to make the jump (“Mean Girls” director Mark Waters’ “The House of Yes” comes to mind), Finley displays a natural cinematic instinct, treating the baroque, marble-lined mansion where the film principally unfolds not as a closed-in set, but a kind of tiger sanctuary, prowling the location in long, restless takes — whether it’s stalking an SUV up the gravel driveway or lurking behind a door jam, carving knife in hand, while two characters stare each other down in the adjacent room.

Two collaborators in particular raise Finley’s game, giving “Thoroughbreds” its uniquely unnerving personality: First is cinematographer Lyle Vincent (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), who shoots in widescreen, working with a relatively narrow depth of field, which allows him to subtly ease our focus precisely where he wants it (as in an outdoor lawn-chess set, shifting the power between Lily and Amanda within a single shot). The other is composer Erik Friedlander, a cellist who manipulates his instrument to achieve various atonal effects — boinks and sproings, or else noises that sound like cats screeching and dogs barking — which act in disconcerting counterpoint to the relatively refined visuals.

These two disciplines meld beautifully with Finley’s accomplished sense of blocking and timing, yielding a film that presents an image far richer than its mid-seven-figure budget might suggest. “Thoroughbreds” doesn’t look or sound anything like other teen-centric movies, but this is hardly a surface-only character study. Rather, the high-gloss, baroque world of Lily’s house serves as an elaborate mask for their true natures, and over the course of a tense, twisted 90 minutes, Finley worms deep into both Amanda’s and Lily’s psyches. It all climaxes in a virtuoso scene where the most important things aren’t spoken, and the most grisly acts occur off-screen, all of which begs the question who is putting whom out of whose misery.

Film Review: 'Thoroughbreds'

Reviewed at Real D screening room, Beverly Hills, March 2, 2018. (In Sundance, London, AFI, Palm Springs film festivals.) Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: A Focus Features release and presentation, in association with June Pictures of a June Pictures, B Story production, in association with Big Indie Pictures. Producers: Kevin J. Walsh, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks. Executive producers: Ted Deiker, Ryan Stowell, Declan Baldwin.

Crew: Director, writer: Cory Finley. Camera (color, widescreen): Lyle Vincent. Editor: Louise Ford. Erik Friedlander.

With: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift, Kaili Vernoff.

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