Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds burned up the festival circuit last year—Sundance, Palm Springs, Chicago, Toronto—where it played as Thoroughbred before becoming pluralized for general release. It’s the kind of movie that festival audiences, high-tone critics, film-studies majors and other pretentious types love to gush over. But unless you’re one of those, don’t be fooled by the picture’s 83 rating on Metacritic or the 87 on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s an artsy-fartsy crock.
It’s also the kind of movie that those ecstatic critics like to call startlingly original, one of a kind—then launch into a list of what it reminds them of: Heathers, Equus, American Psycho, The Shining, Cruel Intentions, Heavenly Creatures and so on. Exactly. This movie isn’t the product of observing life; it’s the result of watching other, better movies.
Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy play Amanda and Lily, well-to-do teenagers in suburban Connecticut. Good friends as children, they’ve drifted apart, reunited now because Amanda’s mother bribed Lily to be an SAT tutor and “good influence” on Amanda.
Amanda is a sociopath, shunned for her treatment of the family horse, another thoroughbred. (What she did is, shall we say, the kind of thing that “no animals were harmed in the making of this picture” was invented for.) Amanda boasts that she never feels emotion and has to put out a special effort to fake it. At this she is an abject failure. She speaks in a lifeless monotone, staring straight ahead, her face as motionless as a granite statue. Nothing ever moves except her lips; she’s like a character from a 1960s Clutch Cargo cartoon.
Lily, on the other hand, feels everything. She masks this by speaking in a lifeless monotone, staring straight ahead, her face as motionless as a granite statue.
Amanda correctly intuits that Lily hates her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks). Mark is an implacable tyrant who speaks in a lifeless monotone, staring straight ahead, his face as motionless… oh, have you heard this one?
That’s the pattern of first-time writer-director Cory Finley’s approach. Some call it “stylish,” but what it really is, is mannered. The affectation starts in the first shot and becomes more pronounced with every one of Thoroughbreds’ 92 minutes, as Amanda and Lily hatch their deadpan plot to murder Mark.
To implement their plan, the girls turn to Tim, a small-time pot-dealing loser—and, with a hideous irony, the only sign of life in Thoroughbreds comes from the one actor who is no longer with us: Tim is played by Anton Yelchin, who filmed his scenes shortly before his tragic death in 2016.
Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke may be prime nominees for 2018’s Heather Donahue Flash In The Pan Award (Donahue, trivia fans, was the actress who whimpered runny-nosed into a camcorder in The Blair Witch Project), but Anton Yelchin was on his way to being a great actor. His presence here makes seeing Thoroughbreds heartbreaking—the more so since the rest of the movie isn’t worth bothering with.