Originally conceived as a play, Thoroughbreds (which is now playing in general release) still feels plenty theatrical. The developments are primarily internal, the action dialogue driven. Writer-director Cory Finley displays a nice use of the wide-screen frame to heighten the drama, exaggerating the emotional distance between characters or using negative space to draw attention to secrets left unspoken. It’s a handsome movie about awful people—the slender narrative revolves around the plotting of a murder, and the character positioned as the film’s voice of reason claims early on that she has no emotions. What makes it interesting is that Finley never spurs disgust toward his characters, but rather a certain fascination that blossoms unexpectedly into sympathy.
The film takes place in a wealthy and secluded Connecticut suburb that evokes the well-to-do French communities that Claude Chabrol was so fond of profiling. When it opens, high school senior Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch and Split) is helping her estranged friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke) prepare for a standardized reading comprehension test. Amanda is angry to be there. Having read her mother’s e-mail correspondence, she knows that Lily is getting paid for her time, and Amanda hurls this fact in Lily’s face, making the other girl feel guilty. Amanda is adept at controlling others, and this quality of hers will come to fuel the story.
The girls rekindle their old friendship as they spend more time together, using the other to unburden themselves of bottled-up feelings. Lily admits to never having gotten over her father’s death, which occurred a few years earlier; moreover, she hates the man her mother married not long after the funeral. Amanda opens up about feeling dead inside and learning to fake emotions so as to appear normal. Her deep-seated apathy arouses Lily’s curiosity—perhaps she wishes she weren’t so in thrall to her own emotions. In an early scene Amanda casually suggests that Lily murder her stepfather, and this leaves her friend shocked. Yet they continue to see each other, and soon enough Lily starts asking her friend how they might kill the man and get away with it.
The literate dialogue of Thoroughbreds is delivered generally in a prim, flat style that recalls the films of Hal Hartley and Whit Stillman. (In fact the whole movie evokes the wry, low-key American indies that flourished during those directors’ heyday.) This strategy reflects the characters’ emotional guardedness as well as the stifling propriety of the society they inhabit. At the same time, the mannered delivery gives the actors something to work against; the performances exhibit a complexity that seems to fill the minimalist mise-en-scene. Cooke is particularly good, seeming self-aware even when she’s playing naive, but Taylor-Joy is more than just a foil to the scheming Amanda. Lily is the one who undergoes the greater transformation over the course of the movie, and Taylor-Joy signals this change in subtle, astute ways.
Thoroughbreds also marks the final role of the late Anton Yelchin, who delivers the film’s sole expressive performance. He plays Tim, a drug dealer and all-around fuck-up whom the girls attempt to blackmail into murdering the stepfather. Tim may own a gun and boast of his thriving drug operation, but he’s actually more naive than his teenage clientele. In his mid-20s and already an ex-convict, Tim is one misstep away from a long prison sentence; Yelchin makes the character’s desperation seem poignant, reminding me of the men played by the great character actor Elisha Cook Jr. in The Big Sleep and The Killing. Tim changes over the course of the story too, but there’s a neat ambiguity to his transformation—you’re never quite sure whether he acts on his own or out of deference to Lily and Amanda.
It’s the snakiness of the relationships that elevates Thoroughbreds from being a routine critique of economic privilege. Finley is interested in the dark corners of psychology where malice and desire converge, and he generates a surprising amount of tension by lingering on it. The movie builds a twofold sense of anticipation—you don’t just want to see what the characters will do; you want to know how they’ll do it and how the behavior will change them. (The story is as much about whether Amanda will break out of her shell as it is about whether the girls will succeed in killing the stepfather.) It’s a welcome reminder of how much a director can achieve with a low budget. The movie appeals to your imagination and expands there.