Director: Cory Finley
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin
Initial Thoughts: It wasn’t the movie I showed up for. I didn’t even like it at first. But a second viewing solidified that B- rating. Keep reading to find out why…
**There’s always the potential for spoilers below! If you think you’d like to give this film a watch, stop now, and then return afterwards!**
I’ve now seen ‘Thoroughbreds’ two times; it’s not a remarkable fact, unless you consider the fact that I generally don’t re-watch movies I did not enjoy (during the first viewing). In fact, it was somewhat by happenstance that I found myself renting this for a second viewing.
I did not enjoy my first viewing experience, but not because ‘Thoroughbreds’ is a bad film. On the contrary, I think it is actually a pretty good film, but one that suffers from a contradictory trailer and marketing campaign. And while I know every good critic tries to remove their biases and watch objectively, situational factors do influence reviews; only a fool would protest otherwise. I first saw ‘Thoroughbreds’ back in March, in theaters; I’m actually really glad that it worked out that so much time elapsed between my viewing and my desire to actually write about it. It was enough time that, while reading summaries in other reviews, I realized I had forgotten entire moments of the movie—which normally would be a bad sign. However, the fires of my curiosity were stoked, and so I picked it up again, almost on a whim.
Before we get into the real thick of things, I feel like I need to tell you about two very important factors concerning my experiences with ‘Thoroughbreds’:
- I first watched this at my local independent theater, at 10:30 AM on a weekday (I think it was Wednesday or Thursday). It’s a huge space inside, and there was only one other patron in attendance. I practice intermittent fasting, and it just so happened that day that I was set to break my fast around 10-10:30, and because I didn’t want popcorn so early in the day and had not had the forethought to sneak some sustenance in with me, I was pretty hangry throughout the entire experience; I wasn’t in the best mood. Also, this is not a film you want to basically start your day with. This is an afternoon-film at least. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
- The trailers for this movie are really misleading. The comparison to ‘Heathers’ is quite a stretch. ‘Thoroughbreds’ is severely lacking in any sort of dark humor. I cannot recall chuckling at all during either experience. Maybe a smirk once during the second time, but definitely no laughter. Not even the abrupt, incredulous, I’m-pretty-uncomfortable kind of laugh. The trailers really go out of their way to mislead the viewer, tricking them into thinking this will be a dark comedy, full of very dark shenanigans, but that’s not the actual tone of the film at all. If you go into ‘Thoroughbreds’ expecting some perverse humor, you’re going to leave disappointed.
When you examine ‘Thoroughbreds’ as the film that it actually is, and not the film that the trailer and marketing campaign were spinning, it’s actually a pretty fine effort. I was actually reconsidering titling this entry as “Thoroughbreds: An Apology,” but I don’t feel like my general reaction from my first viewing was incorrect. The film pitched to me wasn’t at all what I got, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being upset by that, especially in the moment (and especially at the cost of going to the movie theater these days)! If I’m sorry for anything, it’s only that I wish I had been able to set aside this disappointment and give the film a really objective review; but at the same time, it’s not my job to forgive a misleading trailer. Argh. Whatever. Let’s move on, shall we?
Normally I’d provide a quick description from IMDb to give you a quick idea of the plot (especially if you need a refresher or you’re not planning on seeing the movie but you’re curious enough). But the plot summary isn’t great, and like the trailer, it’s misleading.
Two upper-class teenage girls in suburban Connecticut rekindle their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. Together, they hatch a plan to solve both of their problems—no matter what the cost.
My biggest issues are as follows: it’s not really a rekindling of friendship, it’s more of a realization of the character Lily, that her former friend Amanda could be a very useful means to end for Lily. One could argue that Amanda’s snap decision toward the crescendo of the third act gets her a situation that will probably benefit her in all actuality because someone with such a severe personality disorder might really benefit from an institutionalized program, but it does feel that ultimately Lily comes out ahead.
I think the Wikipedia summary is a bit better:
The plot follows a high-school student, Lily, and her sociopathic friend Amanda as they scheme to kill Lily’s stepfather, Mark. They contract a drug dealer to do the job for them, but he backs out at the last minute, and Lily kills Mark herself, framing Amanda.
A little less dramatic and more true to the actual plot. I’ve presented both here because I think this is an excellent example of why it’s important to get your information from multiple sources! Everyone has a bias, and you’d do well to keep that in mind! Shop around! Check a few different sites out! And ultimately make your own decision!
‘Thoroughbreds’ is the directorial debut of Cory Finley and a really beautiful film for a proverbial first introduction. There is no arguing that Finley has a natural talent and a keen eye for detail and composition. ‘Thoroughbreds’ looks amazing. And considering that Finley isn’t even thirty yet, it’s safe to assume the best is really yet to come. He has a natural eye for strong composition, and even the brief gore in the third act of the film feels tight, contained, and polished. Finley holds back truly traumatizing us by keeping the real violence off-screen, but we’re quaking with anticipation even after the cuts.
At first, we tiptoe through the main set of the film, Lily’s house, a tribute to the Steadicam finesse of Lyle Vincent. We’re set to be unsettled right off the bat by the weirdly percussive and noise-heavy score of Erik Friedlander. It’s uncomfortable. The moments are broken by the somewhat abrupt confrontations of the weirdness between characters—first between Lily and Amanda, and then between them as a unit and others, namely Anton Yelchin’s character, Tim. But this film desperately needed some laughs to allow the audience to really sink in and relax a little spell instead of suffering mild whiplash as we move from one uncomfortable moment to the next. You finish the film and feel a mild emotional whiplash, but maybe not as it was intended.
There’s so much to be commended about this film (despite it not living up to the trailer). It’s a tight 92 minutes—and y’all know how I feel about movies in the 90 minute range. It was edited by Louise Ford who has knocked it out of the park with past credits like ‘The VVitch’ and ‘Don’t Breathe.’ It’s beautiful. The sets are immaculately dressed. Everything is lit really well. The casting is pretty spot on. Both leads, Olivia Cooke (Amanda) and Anya Taylor-Joy (Lily) are exquisite, and each shine brightly without eclipsing the other. No doubt that creating chemistry when one half of your duo is meant to display no emotion isn’t an easy task; I found myself captivated whenever it was just her and Taylor-Joy on the screen. Yelchin, in his last role, is entirely believable as the shiftless and indolent neighborhood scumbag drug dealer. There’s a moment at the very end that I particularly enjoyed, the moment that rips away all of the wishful whimsy of Amanda’s voice-over. I won’t spoil it here, just in case you’re still going to give it a watch yourself. Lastly, I have really enjoyed discussing this film with fellow enthusiasts, especially on the topic of just exactly which character is the real sociopath and who, if anyone, actually comes out ahead at the end.
Other than the marketing and trailer, my grievances with ‘Thoroughbreds’ are few. I thought Lily’s motivations for wanting her stepfather dead were a little weak. Don’t get me wrong, Mark (played by the more-handsome-when-he-wears-a-beard Paul Sparks) is a total passive aggressive dick, but none of his transgressions seemed evil enough to warrant getting murdered. Lily’s mother (played by Francie Swift) is also under-utilized, so much so that it almost seems puzzling to include her at all, especially when you consider the aforementioned weakness of Lily’s motivations! She could have been a vital part in establishing a stronger motive for Lily to even want Mark dead! My final complaint is that this film exists in the space between a film and a play. It feels very much like the female answer to ‘Equus,’ and thus it would be grand to see it on the stage. The great problem with translating it to the stage is the absolute personification that Finley has brought to the house, and the very scope of it demands a largeness, despite these very small and concentrated, intimate moments between our two leads. It has to be done on film. Even though 90% of it is begging to take place in an intimate-yet-institutional black box theater.
Final Thoughts: If you manage to put the “‘American Psycho’ meets ‘Heathers'” marketing out of your mind, ‘Thoroughbreds’ is a provocative and interesting experience. It definitely improves upon a second viewing.