Cory Finley came in hot with his first film. With Thoroughbred, the writer and director has delivered a stylish, eerie psychodrama about that most vexing of subjects: teenage girls.
The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy is Lily, a prim, posh young woman who’s home after graduating boarding school early. She begins tutoring her former friend Amanda (Ouija’s Olivia Cooke) at the urgent behest of Amanda’s mother. Amanda’s troubled – there’s a history there, though Thoroughbred takes its time in meting it out – and Lily appears to be the only person who’s willing to spend time with Amanda. Not that Amanda minds her solitude – she matter-of-factly explains to Lily that she doesn’t feel things like loneliness, joy or guilt. “I have a perfectly fine brain. It just doesn’t contain feelings. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person – just that I have to try harder than other people to be good.”
Her easy candor is good for Lily, who spends most of her life lying to herself and others in order to maintain that pristine façade. It’s Amanda who gets Lily to admit the truest thing about herself: that she hates her step-father Mark (Paul Sparks), the wealthy creep who married Lily’s mother after her father passed away. Before we meet Mark, we see pictures of him standing proudly next to a lion he killed or brandishing a samurai sword, and once we meet him, he’s somehow even worse. He wears tiny bike shorts and paints model airplanes, he juices and spends hours nighty on his rowing machine. He’s your basic nightmare. When Amanda casually asks Lily why she doesn’t just kill Mark already, Lily’s aghast – until she’s intrigued.
Taylor-Joy and Cooke are remarkable in Thoroughbred. They’re like these creepy little porcelain dolls animated by a mad scientist and just barely taught how to operate as human beings. Amanda teaches Lily “the technique” – the biological method she uses to compel herself to cry at times that it’s expected of her. When she abruptly tries to hug Lily, Lily shrinks away, unnerved. “It looked liked an attack.”
Even when they’re just eating Pop Chips and watching TV, there’s something sinister about them. Amanda is mechanically shoveling chips in her mouth, staring at something off-screen. When she attempts to close the bag and put it away, Lily becomes the monster. “Leave it,” she orders, and as they walk away we see a maid slip silently into the frame to clean the girls’ mess.
But Lily and Amanda's profound weirdness, their cavalier approach to murder, the deep secrets of themselves that they hide from everyone else they know – none of this precludes them from being very real friends to one another. Lily and Amanda’s friendship might not look like any other friendship we’ve seen in life or on film, but it’s genuine – and for all of their badness at basic human emotions, it’s moving.
Finley’s direction is striking and deliberate. He frames the girls so carefully against each other and their beautifully decorated backdrops. This movie is designed within an inch of its life, with a piercing, tribal score that heightens an already heightened atmosphere. Thoroughbred is brightly lit and colorfully hued, but the comedy is black as pitch. It’s this funny, fascinating character study that easily drifts into a horror show, and it just looks so goddamn great. It’s astonishing, an audacious success from a first-time filmmaker, and a film that you absolutely must keep on your radar until you get the chance to see it.