by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 9, 2018


In the early moments of Cory Finley's debut film, "Thoroughbreds," we're introduced to the lush, blinding white interiors of an expansive mansion in suburban Connecticut. The home immediately gives off an uncomfortable vibe that brought about recollections of the estate in Jordan Peele's "Get Out" -- it's so overly polished and perfect, you just know something sinister is lurking underneath the surface.

This anxious balance is also present in the personality output (or lack thereof) of the film's protagonist, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), who enters this sprawling abode and wanders around it like a ghost, penetrating its haunting silence and stopping briefly in front of a mirror to practice her smile.

We soon meet Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), who proves to be Amanda's opposite by essentially camouflaging into the pristine aesthetics of her home. Draped in white with her posture straight as an arrow, Lily immediately comes off as one of those people who tries far too hard to please. She's too friendly, her smile is too big and, as a result, there's an air of fakeness about her that Amanda can immediately sniff out. Amanda, as she explains to Lily later, doesn't feel much of anything anymore, exemplifying the personality traits of a textbook sociopath but without the agonizing over-scrutiny that characters such as Amanda have received in films with similar subject matter. She's a human being first and a sociopath second, not the other way around.

Amanda and Lily used to be childhood friends, but the viewer can easily discern that class and circumstance has torn them apart over the years. There's also that notorious story about Amanda and a horse that damaged her reputation and drew a divide between her and a socialite like Lily, but "Thoroughbreds" makes sure to reserve this reveal for the proper occasion.

The first few scenes of this film are riddled with uncomfortable tension as Amanda and Lily perform their way through an awkward tutoring session, organized by the former's mother (Lily insists she isn't getting paid and just wants to hang out with her friend, but Amanda knows from the start this isn't true). It isn't until the two girls finally shed their costumes and cut through the bullshit that they begin to rekindle their friendship, and that's where the fun of "Thoroughbreds" truly begins.

Amanda, while entirely apathetic to most things, is extremely astute at discerning the emotional cues of others. She's mastered what she calls "the technique," where she can convincingly cry on cue -- a talent she teaches to Lily in one of the film's most hilarious moments. Based on a single interaction, Amanda's perceptiveness leads her to immediately realize that Lily despises her stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). Lily reveals the trapped mentality of her and her mother, Karen (Kaili Vernoff), who tolerate Mark's brutish asshole-ism due to a selfish need for the security and lifestyle he provides. Helpless, she turns to Amanda for advice. "Why not just kill him?" Amanda responds.

This question sends "Thoroughbreds" spiraling into something that expertly takes on the form of a wickedly twisted satire, complemented by a dark wit and humor that slice through the viewer's funny bone like razor blades. This film expertly balances sharp, cerebral verbal sparring with heart-racing suspense, an anxiety that is only heightened by a percussion-driven score that escalates in unison with the plot. It is gorgeously photographed and playfully edited, directed with a confidence of a filmmaker fluent in the building blocks of tension-building cinema. It features an excellent final performance from the gone-too-soon Anton Yelchin, playing a townie scumbag who deals drugs to high school kids. It's a hugely enjoyable yet gently tragic reminder of the future great performances that could've been.

"Thoroughbreds" is a constant delight, delivering entertaining adrenaline and biting hilarity from one scene to the next and building to a climax that will linger long after leaving the theater. It's a feature film debut that's swimming in swagger and curiosity from its filmmaker, Cory Finley, who began his career as an up-and-coming playwright. Finley's aptitude in dialogue is easily distinguishable here, but his inquisitive eye behind the camera is what ultimately makes "Thoroughbreds" such a dynamic debut. Pair this with an excellent trio of performances from Cooke, Taylor-Joy, and Yelchin, and you've got yourself the makings of a cult classic.