Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) are two teenagers with a fraught history. Once best friends, they’ve grown apart through their adolescence, with Lily becoming stuck in a high-class boarding-school life with a mean ol’ stepdad, and Amanda having grown into a self-aware sociopath with an animal-cruelty charge. Placed together by their parents in an attempt to resocialise them, their rekindled friendship quickly turns murderous.
Lily and Amanda’s relationship is Thoroughbreds’ core, and the two leads - barely ever off screen - make it sing, with carefully restrained performances that both conceal and demonstrate their characters’ psychological issues. Both characters are fucked up, with Amanda unable to feel emotion and Lily repressing hers, but only Amanda is honest with herself about it. That feels pretty true to life. Cooke and Taylor-Joy handle the gradual shift in their status relationship, with Lily’s self-righteous tutor turning into murderous protege, with skilled aplomb - they’re fascinating to watch, each operating in a manner more than a touch removed from "ordinary" humanity.
Compounding the two leads’ fucked-uppedness is their status as products of a privileged class. Lily and Amanda both come from well-to-do households with the money to shell out for expensive private schools and/or private tutors; they live in a picturesque neighbourhood of suburban mansions characterised by swimming pools, stone backyard chess sets, and tacky Roman columns. That their emotional disconnection matches their social and residential isolation is an easy line to draw - and of course, their actual suffering doesn’t match that which they perceive - but it’s effectively realised.
Watching Thoroughbreds, I quickly got an inkling that it was a very specific kind of movie. The small cast; the setting, mostly in a single house; the lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes; the presence of a significant, unseen plot device that exists solely as a sound effect - they all give off the distinct scent of a play-to-film adaptation. Sure enough, writer-director Cory Finley started writing Thoroughbreds for the stage, adapting it into a movie before the play ever got produced. But while Finley says he kept seeing the story in camera shots and edits, watching it I couldn’t help but see how it would be directed and designed for stage. That’s my theatre background talking, of course, but it goes a ways toward demonstrating how clearly Thoroughbreds betrays its script’s roots.
Sadly, nearly every time an opportunity comes up for the story to take off in a different direction, it’s immediately abandoned. The film’s third most significant character - the late Anton Yelchin, as cowardly third-stringer drug dealer Tim - is particularly underutilised, with a mid-film incident of his taking the least-dramatic turn possible, sidelining Yelchin for a full half of the movie. Granted, that allows Lily and Amanda to take centre stage, but while their ultimate act of bonding and violence is surprisingly affecting, it’s also kind of predictable. In a film whose musical score tries so hard to discomfit (even if it ends up mostly annoying), that’s a little dispiriting.
Thoroughbreds is a fascinating dual character study and a terrific vehicle for its lead actresses, but it never quite comes to the climax it hints at. It’s missing a narrative gear-change or two, hinting at a thriller with twists and turns but ultimately playing out in a disappointingly linear fashion. Still, as a portrait of teenage sociopathy - whether real or affected - it’s a worthwhile and delightfully misanthropic watch.