Rotten in Connecticut
A dark psychological thriller of privilege gone bad
In Thoroughbreds, a couple of teenage young ladies from privileged backgrounds entangle themselves in a bizarre murder scheme.
That may sound like it has the makings of a mean-girls exploitation flick aimed at younger audiences. But Cory Finley’s movie (skillfully adapted from his own play) is an elegant and uncommonly effective entry in the long long line of Hitchcock-inflected psychological thrillers.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) are erstwhile childhood friends who are reunited under somewhat strained circumstances. Lily, who looks to be the perfect product of some high-end finishing school, is serving as a “tutor” to Amanda in a program ostensibly aimed at helping the latter recover from a devastating personal trauma.
The two young women are contrasting studies in beguiled affectlessness. Amanda has a shrewd sensitivity to nuances of damaged human behavior, but is also deeply scarred by her involvement in the destruction of her mother’s beloved thoroughbred horse. Lily’s aura of immaculate perfection is plainly too good to be true, and when her guilty secrets begin to surface, they are smaller and less ferocious than those of Amanda.
Still, Lily’s the one who initiates the murder scheme. Her animosity toward her rather supercilious stepfather (a haughty Paul Sparks) boils over into shared fantasies of lethal retribution, and the twists and turns of character derangement accelerate from that point on.
The story gets even better with the addition of sad-sack Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), a would-be wheeler-dealer who sells drugs to the young women’s contemporaries. His somewhat tattered presence in the story sharpens Finley’s themes of class conflict and hollow American dreams of financial triumph.
Finley’s script gives extra dimension to the psychological dramatics by way of the attention it pays to the points-of-view of the stepfather and the drug dealer. There is, eventually, a murder, and the film does have its obliquely chilling, blood-stained moment. But the most significant developments in the later portions of the tale have to do with changing perspectives on those two male characters.
Cooke and Taylor-Joy are very good with their respective, complexly crazed characterizations. Yelchin’s Tim, with his scruffy rummaging among even the most threadbare signs of success and self-respect, gives the film its most appealingly “human” moments.
But all of the characterizations gain power through the film’s stylishly expressive technical design. The aggressively eclectic music track and sound design greatly enhance the film’s sense of psychological disarray. And a rowing machine, heard but not seen in an upstairs room, becomes an especially disquieting emissary of bad dreams and madness.