You’d never know the moody neo-noir character drama “Thoroughbreds,” about two privileged Connecticut teens cooking up a murder-for-hire, is writer-director Cory Finley’s feature debut. Its gait is one of skill and assurance, racing to the big screen after finishing in the money at Sundance last year. It’s one of the few buzzworthy indies emerging from the festival circuit that actually pays off.
The success of “Thoroughbreds” is largely to do with Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, playing conniving teenage girls breaking bad. Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) simultaneously seduce and repel. They are not warm, bubbly girls. Both harbor many secrets and psychological issues. When they hatch a plan to bump off another character, they’re toxic and riveting at the same time. Especially Cooke, who’s Amanda is a social outcast, fresh out of an institution for mercy-slaughtering her prized horse. She says things like: “The only thing worse than being incompetent, or being unkind, or being evil, is being indecisive.”
Drawing on his stage roots, Finley, a playwright-turned-filmmaker, keeps the movie on a tight leash. It’s stagey. Most of the action takes place at the mansion owned by Lily’s icy step-father (Paul Sparks, “House of Cards”). Theirs is a tempestuous relationship. He’s smug. She hates him, but has no problem living in his lavish home, drinking his expensive wine and spending his money. In appearance, she’s a poster girl for Vineyard Vines, refined and polished, opposite of the rough-around-the-edges Amanda. The late Anton Yelchin, in one of his final roles, plays a small-potatoes drug dealer getting wrapped up in girls’ devious doings. Francie Smith plays Lily’s mother, a woman who favors her new husband over her daughter.
“Thoroughbreds” is dark, violent, twisty, sometimes funny and filled with scathing subtext on wealth, class and privilege. Finley comes out of the gate strong, with measured pacing and a film noir style that points toward “Cruel Intentions” meets “American Psycho.” He stumbles a bit as the story crosses the finish line, selling out to a way-too-quick-and-tidy ending, one that doesn’t fit with the nuance and subtlety he builds in the first two acts.
Taylor-Joy, who wowed in “The Witch” and “Split,” continues to build a solid resume. She’s a rising star. Ditto for Cooke (“Me Earl and the Dying Girl” and the upcoming Spielberg thriller “Ready Player One.”) Their characters might be selfish and incapable of empathy, but they sure are irresistible.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Francie Smith, Paul Sparks, Anton Yelchin.
(R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references and some drug content.)