"Thoroughbreds" is a crime film that generated a lot of buzz on the festival circuit last year, and it has finally hit theaters in limited release. I had heard good things about the film and was quite excited to see how it turned out. Does it live up to the hype? For the most part, yes. "Thoroughbreds" treads the same ground as many crime films before it, but it succeeds due to the exceptionally strong performances and its flashes of dark comedy.
The film follows Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), a high school girl who rekindles her relationship with Amanda (Olivia Cooke), an old childhood friend. Amanda is emotionally disturbed and most likely a sociopath, which Lily finds morbidly fascinating. Lily begins spending more and more time with Amanda, partly out of her fascination and partly to annoy her obnoxious stepfather, Mark. Amanda is acutely aware of Lily's contempt for Mark and suggests that they simply kill him to solve the problem. Lily initially resists the idea, but after discovering her stepfather plans to ship her off to boarding school as a means of getting rid of her, she agrees to go through with the deed. The teenage duo enlists the help of Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), a sleazy small-time drug dealer, to carry out the murder. As with most crime films, things do not go as planned, and things spiral out of control.
Other movies before "Thoroughbreds" have dealt with petty crime schemes gone wrong ("Heathers" and "To Die For" come to mind when thinking of this film), but where this film succeeds is in its performances. First-time director Corey Finley comes to this film with a background in theater (the script for "Thoroughbreds" was even originally written as a stage play), so it makes sense that great emphasis is placed on the performances. Olivia Cooke is particularly captivating as Amanda. Her deadpan delivery gives her frequently disturbing dialogue a darkly comedic edge. She consistently elicited nervous laughter from the audience at the screening I attended, a mutual feeling of "is she really serious or is this all some sort of sick joke?". Anya Taylor-Joy plays off her costar quite well, transforming over the course of the film from a curious observer into a cunning manipulator as she becomes more actively involved in the murder plot. Anton Yelchin is also quite good as the cagey, pathetic drug dealer, one of the more outwardly comedic characters in the film. The screen chemistry between the three actors is excellent, and their shared scenes are some of the better ones in the film.
While the acting in the film is certainly enough for me to recommend the film, I wish the story had gone a bit further. The movie never quite gives a convincing enough reason for Lily to want to kill her stepfather. He is unbearably WASPish and is rude to both his wife and daughter, but his relationship with Lily never seems so tenuous that murder would ever enter the equation. Perhaps the intention was to satirically underscore Lily's status as a spoiled upper-crust rich kid living in Connecticut. However, not enough is made of that point for it to ever coalesce into something solid, so it winds up stretching suspension of disbelief that she would decide to resort to murder so quickly.
Overall, "Thoroughbreds" is a pretty solid crime movie. It does not reinvent the wheel, but the performances are strong enough to carry the familiar plot. There is a pleasantly off-putting edge to the film, a feeling bolstered by Olivia Cooke's performance as Amanda. It is the kind of movie where it always feels like it is on the verge of going off-the-rails crazy; there is a sort of low-grade nervous tension that pervades the film. Ultimately things play out in a predictable manner, but there is always a feeling that things could take a weird turn, and I appreciate that there is at least the tease of something unexpected happening even if it never manifests. Corey Finley is definitely a director to keep an eye on, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.