Thoroughbreds is the work of a playwright, Cory Finley, making his debut feature, and from the staging of events primarily in and around a mansion to the dialogue-heavy screenplay, it is quite clear the film's creator comes from the stage. This, to be clear, is an advantage on the writer/director's part, as it allows its cast the freedom to focus on each other's rhythms and body language in a confined space. This, too, is a movie that deserves such focus, weaving a tale of shifting sympathies and twisted motivations. The build-up is hypnotic, and the follow-through, which relies as much on suggestion as it does on literal pay-off, is more than satisfying.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is one domestic event away from arrest, following an act of cruel and random violence on a horse, and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose family owns the mansion in question, has been hired to be Amanda's friend. The practical reason is a bit murky, but the theoretical one is easy to grasp: Amanda is, openly and admittedly, a clinical psychopath (or what is popularly known as a "sociopath" in non-psychiatric terms). She can grasp empathy and even sense it in other people, but she cannot feel it herself. The film introduces us to her in two ways: We see the build-up to the moment of the horse's gruesome death, and then we see Amanda practicing the act of a welcoming smile in a mirror in Lily's magnificent residence.
This mansion, by the way, is either a masterpiece of art direction or a coup on the part of the location scout on staff behind-the-scenes. During that introduction to Amanda, another character walks through the house, yelling Lily's name to find her somewhere in it, and the yelling persists at least seven or eight times, each time more distant than the last. If that isn't enough to suggest its size, a view from the outside will do it. Clearly, Lily operates within a place of overwhelming privilege that even Amanda, a resident of quite the country house herself, cannot comprehend.
A twisted plan develops between the two, inspired by the graphic description of Amanda's equine violence: They will kill Lily's stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks, who gets a scene of the most riveting dialogue of the entire piece, tense in itself and made only more so by a knife waiting just offscreen) for the corrosive and contemptible ways he treats her mother (played by Francie Swift). First, they need to establish rock-solid alibis for themselves and, to that end, hire a bumbling, rather pathetic drug dealer named Tim (the late Anton Yelchin, so perfectly calibrated at any given moment that the finality of this performance in his filmography hits like a punch to the gut) to do the job for them.
It would be a crime to reveal anything that happens in the final act of this movie. Indeed, one has trepidation even hinting at what happens. Let us only say, vague though this will be, that Amanda and Lily have something of a role reversal. It is neither as easy nor, in fact, as complete a reversal as such a statement might suggest, and the nature of the reversal is deliciously unpredictable. Cooke and Taylor-Joy are exceptional performers of carefully woven dialogue, and Thoroughbreds (a title that takes on a chilling suggestiveness by the last scene) is a perverse examination of the inextricable link between privilege and pathology.
Anya Taylor-Joy (Lily), Olivia Cooke (Amanda), Anton Yelchin (Tim), Paul Sparks (Mark), Francie Swift (Lily's Mother), Kaili Vernoff (Karen).
Directed and written by Cory Finley.
Rated R (disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references, drug content).
Released on March 9, 2018.