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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review: Thoroughbreds (2018)

* * *

Director: Cory Finley
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin

I wanted to like Thoroughbreds a lot more than I actually did. The first two-thirds are clever, intriguing, and go to darker places than most movies about teenagers that aren't outright horror movies or Heathers. Then the ending comes along and ties everything up so quickly and so neatly that I could only feel disappointed. Thoroughbreds is a perfectly fine film built on a trio of strong performances from Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, and the late Anton Yelchin, and a film which, despite its origins as a play, manages not to feel stagey (though it helps that the narrative is enhanced by a feeling of claustrophobia), but it just doesn't quite get there as a story despite a solid build up.

Thoroughbreds is about two girls with a lot of privilege and not much conscience, though only one of them is aware of what she lacks. The girls are Amanda (Cooke) and Lily (Taylor-Joy), who were once close friends but have long-since grown apart. They are brought back together by the machinations of Amanda's mother, who has cajoled and paid Lily to get her to agree to tutor Amanda, who has become a pariah in the community as a result of brutally killing her horse and being charged with animal cruelty. Though Lily tries, at first, to keep up a pretense that she just wants to catch up with Amanda and that there's nothing else in it for her, Amanda's confession to her that she doesn't "feel things" and the discovery that she can say pretty much anything to her without Amanda taking offense or casting judgement quickly strips Lily down to a more base version of herself willing to admit to her darkest desires.

There are two crimes around which Thoroughbreds turns. The first is Amanda's killing of her horse (mercifully not shown, but described in some detail), which has made literal the separation that she has always figuratively felt from the rest of society as a result of her inability to feel things and connect with people on an emotional level. When she explains why she did what she did it seems less like an act of intentional cruelty and more like a misguided act of attempted mercy, but her inability to empathize with others still leaves her chillingly unaffected by how much suffering she caused the horse. It's to Cooke's credit as an actress (as well as to director Cory Finley's ability to craft and maintain tone) that despite the horror of what she's done, and her flat affect, the character still engages whenever she's on screen with her dry wit, bracing honesty, and casual ability to just go with the flow, even when the flow leads to murder.

The second crime is Amanda and Lily's plot to kill Lily's stepfather (Paul Sparks), formulated after Lily admits that she hates him and Amanda makes an off-hand suggestion that Lily could just kill him and be done with it. Lily dismisses the suggestion - or, at least, she seems to. In actuality she dwells on it and then tries to take Amanda up on it, apparently under the impression that Amanda would simply do it for her and she could keep her hands clean. Amanda quickly sets her straight and they come up with a plan to blackmail Tim (Anton Yelchin), a low level drug dealer, into doing it for them, allowing them to make sure that they're far away with solid alibis when the deed is done.

While story's first crime establishes Amanda as a sociopath, the second reveals just how little stands between Lily's veneer of socially acceptable behavior and her darkest impulses and capacity for manipulation. The insular nature of the story (Amanda, Lily, Tim, and Lily's stepfather are practically the only characters) makes it somewhat difficult to gauge exactly how Amanda is perceived in the community, but there's enough evidence to conclude that people think she's dangerous. Yet it's Lily, who actually possesses a moral barometer, who is the real danger because she also possesses the ability to hide in plain sight. Amanda hides nothing and everyone can see how she is; Lily can adopt the outward characteristics necessary to put people at ease and make them trust her. One you could see coming, the other you wouldn't, and the film does a thorough job at exploring what really makes someone a monster.

Yet, for all that, the film's conclusion still leaves something to be desired. It unfolds so fast and wraps things up so tidily that it feels less like a natural conclusion and more like a deus ex machina. With a little more build up, a bit more turning of the screw for Lily, the finale probably could have worked, but in its lean, 92 minute state, the film feels like it skips a few steps (one of them being logic) to get the story to where it needs to go. Thoroughbreds has a lot of the elements necessary to be a great film, but it ultimately falls just a bit short of the mark. It's a good movie, but it could have been more.

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