In Alexander Mackendrick’s classic film noir “Sweet Smell of Success,” gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) describes the protagonist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) as a “cookie full of arsenic.” There is no better turn of phrase to describe “Thoroughbreds,” a slice of cinematic junk food laced with murderous intentions. The debut feature by director Cory Finley, who adapted his own play for the screen, premiered at Sundance last year to critical acclaim and is now opening courtesy of Focus Features.
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives the illusion of a perfect upper-class life, attending a boarding school when not living with her mother Karen (Kaili Vernoff). She was expelled from her previous school for plagiarism and is still reeling from her father’s tragic death. Even worse, her mother married the despotic Mark (Paul Sparks), a cruel stepfather who wants nothing more than for Lily to disappear from his payroll. In a tutoring session, Lily rekindles her relationship with her childhood friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke), an icy, empathy-devoid young woman with a malicious reputation for having killed her prized thoroughbred horse. When Lily goes to Amanda for advice about how to handle Mark, the two draft a plan to put an end to his reign of terror. With drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) in tow, they set off to murder Mark — with airtight alibis, of course.
In essence, “Thoroughbreds” operates as an equine idiom, constantly drawing symbolic comparisons between the two protagonists and thoroughbred horses — expensive, perfectly bred and in the service of their masters. It’s a profound critique of bourgeois American culture, particularly surrounding a familiar upper-crust New England milieu. The rich turn into bloodthirsty animals caged by their own exclusive cultural practices. Lily and Amanda are both products of this environment, and the actresses that portray them are nothing short of superb.
Taylor-Joy plays Lily with a melodramatic sensitivity, acting that is both genuine and put-upon at the same time. Cooke is on point as the more low-key Amanda, a person devoid of emotion after being crushed by the weight of the expectations on her shoulders. The late, great Yelchin complements them both as the older, lower-class “loser” who wants nothing more than his own wealth. Sparks is the perfect villain as Mark, a robotic conformist who desires nothing more than money and power.
Finley consistently weaves such a critical allegory throughout his debut feature. It permeates every facet of his screenplay and direction, a skill that most likely came from his stage training. The film sounds like a drearily serious piece of work, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Finley imbues his script with a deliciously nasty sense of humor, one with which Cooke’s deadpan delivery and Yelchin’s scrappy energy are in perfect flow. It’s a delightfully brisk piece of work, clocking in at a fast-paced 92 minutes. Balancing this hilarity with such stringent class commentary is no easy task, and Finley mostly succeeds. However, his writing dips into spoon-feeding at some key moments, most notably when Amanda writes a climactic letter to Lily. It drives home the equine idiom of the film far too literally, as if he didn’t trust his audience to figure it out themselves from his thematic breadcrumb trail.
In general, Finley also disappoints in the depth of his arguments. He doesn’t allow his themes enough time to simmer while the plot boils over, making some of his points appear undercooked. Additionally, his tone and critique are masterfully entwined in a structural sense, but they never really synthesize or react in the explosive manner that they should. As a result, the film’s violence loses its impact, feeling like nothing more than a frivolous exercise. Finley’s stylistic choices also contribute to the film’s downside: its stereotypical “Kubrickian” direction, complete with dramatic music cues, a forever-moving camera and meticulously composed images. However, Finley is no Kubrick, and comes across as an admiring child playing around with the cinematic toys his father left him. Such flashy direction isn’t confident, especially from a first-time director.
Still, “Thoroughbreds” is a largely enjoyable experience in light of its flaws. There is some thoughtful material left to chew on when the film is over, even if it never truly coalesces. Finley’s sharp writing and control over tone are a devilish joy to watch, and never overstay their welcome. However, Taylor-Joy and Cooke make the film with their dueling portrayals of privilege gone wild. Their combined talents are enough to leave you wanting to see more from the three, and the opportunities are endless moving forward.