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Dark and stylish, ‘Thoroughbreds’ is an ambitious and successful thriller

By Jonah Koslofsky

Section: Arts

March 16, 2018

I love it when a good movie comes out of nowhere. Remember a few years ago when “John Wick” looked like it was going to be a generic Keanu Reeves flop and ended up being the best action movie in years? And sure, I loved “Key and Peele,” but it’s not like I was expecting that “Get Out” would be the best movie of 2017. Movies have the power to surprise their audiences by being way better than anyone predicted, and although Hollywood is a club of insiders, new talent is still able emerge—that’s the power of a sleeper hit.

Case in point: Cory Finley’s “Thoroughbreds.” At twenty-nine years old, Finley doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and his IMDb entry is a ghost town. Finley started his career as a playwright, but suddenly found himself directing his first feature film based on a script he penned for the stage. A lucky break for him became a blessing for audiences: “Thoroughbreds” is a fantastic film and the perfect example of a good movie that no one saw coming.

The film follows two extrodiantly wealthy teens, each armed with their own intricate and disturbing personality: Amanda (Olivia Cooke) feels no emotion whatsoever, while Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is totally self-absorbed. Lily has an overbearing and borderline-abusive stepfather, Mark, eventually leading Amanda and Lily to decide to kill him. Right off the bat, it would be easy to make these characters feel distant and alien, yet Amanda and Lily are both relatively easy to root for, and the friendship that follows has an attractive honesty to it. It helps that both actresses are extremely talented—on paper the perpetually numb Amanda could come off as apathetic and awful (she has a lot in common with Meursault from Camus’ “The Stranger”), but instead she’s an odd mixture of flawed and tragic. Considering the film opens with Amanda murdering her horse, you wouldn’t expect to find her character sympathetic or relatable, and yet Cooke and Finley find an appealing center for Amanda. Anya Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, continues her winning streak of performances, following her breakout successes in “The VVitch” and “Split.” Taylor-Joy always seems to have an intensity and confidence about her, and that lends itself to the material here. Finley is clearly aware of and nicely exploits the dynamic between Lily and Amanda, helping the audience latch onto Lily’s perspective due to Amanda’s aversion to feelings.

Speaking of Finley, I’m pretty floored by his work here. Not only is the script exceptionally well-structured and paced, the storytelling is constantly clean and robust. “Thoroughbreds” is a cool 88 minutes, and it’s amazing how much mileage Finley gets out of the compact runtime. At the same time, the big issue most playwrights face when adapting their work to the screen is a lack of an exploration of space–cinema has a lot more opportunities for settings and scenery than a play, and playwrights who write scripts sometimes fail to actualize the potential of the medium (looking at you, edgelord Martin McDonagh). But Finley seems to be a natural at directing for the screen: He uses long, intimate and slow takes to bring the audience into each area, and his sound design is spot-on. Finally, Finley makes a good choice not making Lily’s step father explicitly physically abusive, as that would make Lily and Amanda’s plot to kill him much more morally justified. As it stands, the movie operates in a much more interesting grey-area, setting up for a superior (and relatively unhappy) ending.

But more than anyone—even golden boy Finley—the movie belongs to supporting actor Anton Yelchin. He plays Tim, a low level drug dealer and a stark foil to Lily and Amanda’s affluence. Yelchin is great—a little bit dangerous and very funny—in his final role on film. Mostly known for his work in the recent “Star Trek” films, Yelchin passed away in June of 2016 after a freak accident, two weeks after he completed his work on “Thoroughbreds.” Yelchin’s always had a youthful charisma, but here he gets to play a little bit against type and he’s superb. It’s supremely sad what happened to the young actor, but a least a little bit of Yelchin will always live on in “Thoroughbreds.”

The only modifier I would add to my blistering recommendation of “Thoroughbreds” is that it is a very dark movie. If you aren’t looking for a grittier version of “Heathers,” maybe this isn’t the movie for you. Regardless, this is an amazing debut for Finley, and a really awesome thriller. “Thoroughbreds” is a perfect surprise, a tense, stylish and quality film.

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