When Amanda (Olivia Cooke) first walks through the house of her wealthier friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), she does it with a complete wonder as to how this other person lives. She’s an alien visiting an unknown land, almost like Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, trying to understand her surroundings that are so foreign from the world she knows. Amanda looks in a mirror, attempts a smile, but can’t quite pull it off convincingly. After she’s finished exploring this palatial home, Amanda admits to Lily that she just doesn’t feel emotions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with her, she’s just intrinsically a blank slate. As she tells Lily, “I have to try harder than everyone else to be good.”
In Thoroughbreds, the directorial debut of playwright Cory Finley, that struggle to be good – and the inability to have that goodness – is central to Finley’s captivating story. Characters push their limits as to what they’re capable of, but also how hard they have to push to survive. It might be hard for Amanda to be good, but everyone has their own struggles, but those without empathy for other’s struggles will likely make it to the top.
While Amanda can’t feel anything – even when killing her horse with a knife – Lily attempts to hide her emotions, a protective wall that Amanda quickly pushes through. Lily hates her new stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), a game-hunting, cleanse juice-chugging, verbally abusive asshole who she decides must go. With the slightest provocation from Amanda, Lily decides for her and her mother’s happiness, Mark should be murdered.
Amanda seems like the more uncertain of the two, a quiet character that could potentially burst at any moment, but it’s the stillness of Lily and her quick interest in murder that makes these two equally matched in their macabre goal. This plays to both Cooke and Taylor-Joy’s strengths wonderfully. Cooke’s deadpan, indifferent reactions have benefited her well in Me & Earl & The Dying Girl and made her a standout in Bates Motel, whereas Taylor-Joy made a career with simmering darkness in films like The Witch and Split. Their casting as Amanda and Lily is a brilliant match of character and actor.
Stealing every scene in his final performance is Anton Yelchin as Tim, a drug dealing sex offender with lofty goals whom Amanda and Lily hire to murder Mark. Tim is also trying is hardest for his future, yet his economic status and past mistakes will likely hold him back for the rest of his life. Tim’s addition injects class struggles into Thoroughbreds, showcasing the vast differences between Amanda, Lily, and him. The two girls can use Tim for their own ends, a tool that their wealth can purchase for their own goals. Yet in the insular world of Amanda and Lily, Tim adds an added element of uncertainty and a reminder of how much Yelchin could do with any role.
But it’s Finley who is the true revelation here, as the first time filmmaker evokes a Hitchcockian style of growing tension and eeriness. Despite Thoroughbreds mostly taking place in Lily’s home, Finley never lets his film feel stagey, instead his tracking shots and Kubrick-like focus from behind the characters make this world feel much larger than one house. Finley’s deliberate hand and assured direction in every scene is slowly-paced and elegantly crafted.
Thoroughbreds‘ fantastic cast and shockingly great direction and compelling story show that Finley is as calculated and smart as his central characters, an exciting new talent that has made one of 2018’s finest debuts.