We've seen films about two young women becoming friends and plotting a murder together before. "Diabolique" and "Heavenly Creatures" are the obvious reference points. "Thoroughbreds" tackles this situation from a different perspective, working on a frequency closer to teen angst reveries like "Ghost World," full of wry humor and darkly macabre moments. It also has the benefit of two fantastic performances from its lead actresses, Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke.
Wealthy Connecticut teens Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) reconnect after a long estrangement, and this is the catalyst for some very bad behavior. However, Amanda is a literal sociopath who is already in hot water for having killed an ailing horse, and Lily is far more troubled than her picture perfect exterior suggests. For one thing, she hates her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), who makes her life difficult. The girls decide to kill him, roping a local drug dealer named Tim (Anton Yelchin) into their schemes. This is one of Yelchin's last roles, which is a little unfortunate because there's really not much to the part. It's the girls and their complicated friendship that stay firmly at the center of all the melodrama.
Despite the plot hinging so heavily on murder and blackmail, "Thoroughbreds" doesn't function much like a typical thriller. It's more accurately described as a character study of Lily and Amanda, and how they influence each other. Cooke's Amanda is memorably strange, unable to feel or care about things the way everyone around her does, saying off-putting things that make her seem alien and remote. It's clear why she's a social pariah and why Lily develops a fascination with her. She sees the benefits of being a sociopath, saying and doing things that Lily secretly wishes she could. Taylor-Joy gives one of her better performances as Lily, as she slowly comes to embrace her wicked side, and the two actresses play off of each other well.
Toxic friendships have been the source of plenty of interesting cinema, and this one is notable for being surprisingly positive for both of the girls. Amanda gets to spend time with a peer who actually wants to be around her. Lily has someone to confide in, who encourages her to be honest about what she wants. Sure, they bond over their mutual violent impulses and seriously screwed up worldviews, but there's the sense that Amanda and Lily were already on their own personal roads to Hell, and at least this way they have some company. The twists and turns of the relationship are familiar, but they play out very differently than I've seen in other media, with a surprising amount of heart and empathy.
"Thoroughbreds" was originally conceived of as a stage play, which explains the sparse cast and lack of any real action set pieces. All the violence is kept offscreen. However, first time writer/director Cory Finley avoids any staginess in the proceedings. The girls meet in Mark's large, empty house, which often reflects their emotional isolation. We frequently see them surrounded by luxury, but they barely seem to notice or care. To others they project bored disaffection, and Finley has some fun with images of the pair playing at being upper crust ingenues. Otherwise, the direction is only decent, pretty good for a first outing, but with plenty of room for improvement.
So I don't think that "Thoroughbreds" matches up to the classics in this genre, but it's still very enjoyable. I like that it's short, simple, and lacking in any manufactured convolutions. The themes are laid out very clearly, and yet there's a lot left ambiguous. Mark may or may not deserve Lily's loathing. Amanda may or may not have more feelings than she admits. It's left up to the viewer to decide what to make of the girls and their actions, and whether their friendship left them better or worse off. I can't help wishing it were a little longer and dug a little deeper, but that's probably what the filmmakers intended.
Both Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke have been popping up frequently in recent mainstream blockbusters, and it's nice to see them get a chance to play something more off-kilter and unusual. I hope that this isn't the last time that the two cross paths.