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The actors are fine, but Cory Finley's stylish debut doesn't quite deliver on its artistic ambitions
THOROUGHBREDS (Cory Finley). 92 minutes. Opens Friday (March 9). See listing. Rating: NNN
An arch, darkly funny comedy about two teenagers plotting to rid the world of a person they deem too horrible to live, Thoroughbreds is a small movie with big artistic ambitions – and I’m not sure it delivers on them.
Originally conceived by first-time writer/director Cory Finley as a stage play, it’s a tightly focused study of toxic friendship between two privileged girls in a wealthy Connecticut town.
Friends as children, estranged as teens, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, of The Witch and Split) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke, of Me And Earl And The Dying Girl and The Limehouse Golem) reconnect when Amanda’s mother hires Lily to prep Amanda for the SATs. Amanda has fallen behind due to some extracurricular unpleasantness, the nature of which is revealed in drips and drops over the course of the film.
Lily seems thrown by Amanda’s lack of affect, and for good reason: within minutes of sitting down, Amanda confesses that she feels no emotions at all, and has been faking them her entire life. But this absence of feeling makes her a very good judge of character, and she can sense one thing very clearly: Lily wants her douchebag stepfather (Paul Sparks) dead.
Where Thoroughbreds goes from there is not entirely surprising if you’ve ever seen a movie, and especially if you’ve seen the handful of films Finley is directly cannibalizing.
He appropriates the stylized dialogue and cool teens-versus-vapid adults dynamic of Heathers, nicks the subtextual sexual codependency of Heavenly Creatures and lifts the idea of surface gloss covering up seething rage from American Psycho. But he adds a new element that shifts the energy and makes things unpredictable: a shiftless drug dealer named Tim (Anton Yelchin) whom the girls think they can use. Can they? And will he be okay with that? And what if he’s not?
It’s packaged and presented with a polished, precise eye thanks to cinematographer Lyle Vincent, and scored with a percussive thrum thanks to tracks by A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq. And the performances are unimpeachable. Cooke and Taylor-Joy make the most of every pause and shift of posture, and Yelchin – in his last performance before his accidental death two years ago – fills in the sketchy character of Tim with jittery, self-aware pathos.
It works, but it’s cold. All the while I was watching Thoroughbreds, I felt removed from it all the style was pushing me away rather than drawing me in. Like one of his characters, Finley is giving us a performance of a thriller, rather than the thriller itself he’s going through the motions while keeping one eye on us, to see if we’re buying it.