“Thoroughbreds” is a taut, well-structured thriller from first-time director Cory Finley. A former playwright, Finley proves his directorial chops by giving his stage-friendly script a riveting screen adaptation full of tense relationships, deliberate pacing and quirky characters.
The film follows two wealthy suburban teens, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), and the rekindling of their unlikely childhood friendship. When Amanda notices Lily’s strained relationship with her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), she proposes a dastardly plan to solve her problem.
From the second the film opens, something seems off about the world of “Thoroughbreds.” Lily appears to live happily in her family’s pristine Connecticut mansion, but once Mark shows up, a more sinister plot begins to unfold. Sparks’ performance as Mark is pitch perfect, fully embodying the rich, fit, condescending stepfather stereotype. His performance earns every bit of the audience’s loathing, making the catalyst for the film’s plot even more compelling.
Bright young talents Taylor-Joy and Cooke also shine in “Thoroughbreds.” Cooke sells Amanda’s inability to feel emotion completely, and viewers must buy her performance for the film to work. Her dynamic with Taylor-Joy’s more mannered Lily drives the film forward at every turn, and their dry, awkward dialogue keeps the film’s tone cold and distant.
While that tone should be a negative, the late Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek,” “Green Room”) arrives just in time to add some much-needed humanity in one of his last performances recorded before his fatal, freak car accident in 2016. Yelchin plays Tim, a bumbling, low-profile criminal whom Lily and Amanda recruit to help them execute their plan. Yelchin’s choppy line deliveries are refreshing among an otherwise emotionally sterile film.
“Thoroughbreds” often plays like a “Hitchcockian” thriller with its conniving main characters, constantly mounting tension and deliciously wicked ending. From his selective focusing to his production team’s stellar sound design, Finley beautifully manipulates his audience with the swooshing sound of Mark’s prized rowing simulator, first as a character detail and later as part of a chilling plot development. He never shows viewers the machine, but simply allows the deep roar of its manual mechanics to advance the narrative.
Like any true Hitchcock thriller, “Thoroughbreds” is more than just an exercise in suspense. Its exploration of America’s class system can be read into as shallow or deep as one wishes. The film can be enjoyed both as a fresh, well-made thriller and as a meditation on wealth and privilege. Much of the film’s more complex ideas arise once Tim enters the plot. Because of his position in life, Tim is subject to the girls’ commands. His clothing, job and dialect all characterize him as lower class compared to Lily and Amanda, and his involvement in their scheme is both funny and pitiful.
“Thoroughbreds” is a fantastic debut for Finley. Short, concise and to-the-point, his eerie thriller set in upper-class America is a perfect way to kick off his budding career in film. A suspenseful black comedy on its surface and a thoughtful examination of the dangerous pitfalls of privilege underneath, “Thoroughbreds” is a unique and welcomed addition to cinema’s long history of thrillers.
“Thoroughbreds” is now playing in theaters nationwide.