The details of Cory Finley's debut film, Thoroughbreds, lay in the faces of two emotionally detached teenage girls, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy). Living in the upper class suburban confines of Connecticut, their broken friendship might be back off the rocks after Amanda's mother asks Lily to help with her English studies. It's been some time since they sat down together but Amanda sees through her friend’s social pretences like an X-ray simply because her own sociopathic tendencies mean she has none of her own.
Their icy relationship sets the tone for a story that shows both girls struggling with their ability to emote and who is manipulating who isn't perhaps as clear as it first seems. While films like Heathers and Heavenly Creatures are more obvious points of references, there are definite shades of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity about the conniving duo manipulating their way towards a wicked end game.
This numbed out duo exist in a world where living the dream doesn't mean you have to worry about the moral implications of how you sustain it. If a few heads have to be stepped on along the way, so be it. That may even mean putting a body in a bag. But if you can't feel anything, the consequences are just as meaningless.
Amanda admits she is incapable of connecting with her feelings, only able to crack a smile or shed a tear by practising and mimicking the actions of those around her. Most of the story takes place on the grounds of Lily’s stately looking home full of the rich trappings provided for by her arrogant step-father Mark (Paul Sparks). She is perfectly suited to a high society lifestyle of spas and boarding schools, always dressed and preened to perfection.
Finley delves into the strange gaps in their relationship to reveal that the garden isn't so rosy in Lily’s world, least of all her relationship with Mark. It seems as if Amanda’s narcissistic approach to life is rubbing off Lily – although those lines increasingly blur the longer we spend time with them – and when she suggests murdering Mark may be the solution to her problems, Lily’s spoilt tendencies come to the fore.
Thoroughbreds had originally been intended for the stage before being shaped into a screenplay for the big screen. Traces of its origins can still be seen in the confined settings, although the dialogue feels less stagy and more tactile in the mouths of the cast. Cooke and Taylor-Joy are clearly enjoying themselves in their roles and Finley gets two wonderfully pitched performances that revel in the pitch-black dialogue.
This was also one of the last films Anton Yelchin shot before he passed away in 2016 and it feels right that he leaves behind a strong reminder of his ability. Even though his screen time is considerably shorter than his co-stars he manages to give his Tim character the sort of dimension missing from the unbreakable ice surrounding both Amanda and Lily.
What seems to have been lost in the conversion from stage to screenplay is developing the bond between Amanda and Lily to make their actions wholly believable. Finley plays it too slight where a little more applied force wouldn’t have gone amiss, and the threadbare plot is barely enough to maintain the pace, even at a concise 90 minutes.
Elsewhere, Erik Friedlander's discordant, percussive score full of clicks and deep bass drums echoes through the marble halls of the house and cinematographer Lyle Vincent (who did such a great job on Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch) shoots the scenes with razor sharp clarity. While all the work has been done to ensure a chilly atmosphere is in place the lack of penetration at character level makes it all the more frustrating the final narrative pieces can't be slotted into place.