When an actor dies in sudden, tragic fashion, often their death overshadows their final performance. Anton Yelchin passed away in 2016, just 14 days after filming wrapped on Thoroughbreds. A sharp, clever, emotionally affecting thriller, it fits nicely in the niche of off-kilter indie fare he carved out for himself. It watches like a companion piece to Tragedy Girls, a kind of modern riff on Heathers, funny and biting and earnest.
Yelchin has the third largest role in Thoroughbreds, though it’s still relatively minor compared to the leads. The story is primarily a two-hander between Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch, Split) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Ready Player One). Childhood friends in an affluent Connecticut suburb, the two drifted apart and went their own ways, only to reconnect and push each other’s darkest impulses in regards to Lily’s controlling stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks).
On the surface, Lily and Amanda are polar opposites. Lily’s smart and accomplished; socially adept, popular, and bound for big things. She feels everything. Amanda, on the other hand feels nothing, literally. Though it’s never explicitly defined, she suffers from some type of personality disorder. She’s learned to recognize social cues and react accordingly, but it all washes right over her. This leads to her being an outcast, a weirdo, which doesn’t affect her at all, though it’s tough for those around her to deal.
This rekindled friendship is awkward and uncomfortable, primarily for Lily, but it’s also earnest and honest and heartfelt. They can be open with each other in ways they can’t with other people. And, of course, they find they’re more alike than they initially believe, each masking vague, unspoken traumas that eke out over the course of the film.
The film hinges on the two central performances and first-time writer/director Cory Finley has a pair of incredibly talented young actresses working at a high level. Cooke is phenomenal. Amanda could easily have devolved into a caricature of a disaffected teen, but even with her cold, clinical remove, Cooke creates a warmth and affection. She’s droll and distant, but cares about Lily in her own way, as much as she possibly can. With her condition, she says things that, in other teen movies, a character might volley as an attack. But with her actual psychosis, there’s no ill intent, no malice. This doesn’t dampen the destructive force one bit—one moment in particular is absolutely crushing. But instead of brutal honesty, from her mouth it’s simply the truth and she’s being the best friend she knows how.
And though she never fully crumbles under these grenades, Taylor-Joy cracks enough to let Lily show through and reveal the truth beneath the idyllic, perfect exterior. Finley’s script hints at deeper wounds and potentially darker realities. But he never shows the full hand, letting the audience draw its own conclusions, and it carries more weight as oblique questions and looming possibilities—he doles out what’s necessary to know and little more. Both characters should be incredibly unlikable, unabashed and unhesitant as they are in their murderous ways, but their peculiar dynamic is also endlessly compelling to watch.
Lily and Amanda drive the tension as they plot and scheme to get rid of Mark. At times Thoroughbreds echoes a millennial Strangers on a Train. Yelchin plays Tim, a hapless small-town drug dealer with dreams of being a baller—think the guy who’s five years too old to still be hanging out at the high school party—ensnared in their web. He’s goofy and affable and far more out of his depth than he realizes until too late. As we watch him get deeper and deeper, you kind of want to pat him on the head and go, “Oh, buddy.”
Finley originally intended Thoroughbreds as a stage play, which shows in the long scenes and limited locations. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent, who helmed The Bad Batch and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, among others, shot the film. They play with depth of field, pushing and pulling focus, not only crafting visual intriguing frames, but touching on the gradual narrative reveals. Certain things drift into focus as the story progresses, and the two young women exist on different planes, often visually and thematically as well as practically. Composer Erik Friedlander’s discordant score accentuates and emphasizes the strained relationship, building murderous impulses, and inherent unorthodoxy.
Tightly written and tense throughout, and anchored by fantastic performances, Thoroughbreds presents a twisty murder mystery full of intrigue and surprises. Strange and unorthodox, it subverts expectations, offers unexpected flourishes of heart, and doesn’t provide easy answers or over explain every detail. [Grade: A-]