Thoroughbreds (Focus Features, R)

T horoughbreds might remind you of a film from a couple decades ago called Heavenly Creatures directed by Peter Jackson. Both films tell the story of a pair of troubled girls who become friends and plot the murder of a parent. The events in Heavenly Creatures actually happened, providing groundwork for character depth and realistic, gradual rising of tension . Thoroughbreds is a pure work of fiction, and although this doesn’t automatically make it unbelievable, the film does fittingly come across as a rushed fantasy.

Olivia Cooke plays Amanda, a girl who cannot feel emotions, making her a kind of psychopath, but not the scary, violent kind. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Lily, a spoiled rich girl who supposedly “feels everything” according to the film’s marketing, although she, too, has a somewhat callous demeanor. The feelings she has are not indicative of her empathy, but of her self-pitying. Despite living in astounding privilege and abundance, her relatively minor hardships, often brought on by her irresponsibility, embitter her as they would a destitute woman. Neither of the characters are particularly likeable, and Lily is both unlikeable and not very interesting. We have no sympathy for her, as spoiled and selfish as she is. Her stepdad, while ill-tempered and mean-spirited, is not enough of a villain to justify her violent hostility. In fact, a scene comes towards the end where we realize he may actually have quite a bit of moral high ground over her.

What the film has going for it is the character of Amanda. She’s fascinating. Like Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, she doesn’t take any joy from her antisocial acts, which she does, we learn, have a tendency to commit. Rather, she operates on a level of logic and neutrality pushed to such an extreme that it becomes lethal given the necessary circumstances. And yet, of all the film psychos known to us, she is the most sympathetic and peaceful. She never once persuades Lily to take the actions she ends up taking. She just encourages her to be honest and to execute necessary actions without hesitation. This includes both murderous acts, and also moments of reflection. If anyone ever questions whether or not Lily should kill her stepfather, it’s Amanda. She’s like the devil and the angel on both of her shoulders. She’s a sociopath that has no empathy or feelings, but she does seem to have values. In this way, she acts almost like a supernatural entity, coming into Lily’s life by chance and scoping it out, offering her services for no other reason because she can, and acting as the catalyst for what Lily has always wanted to do anyway.

Thoroughbreds is mostly enjoyable. Director Cory Finley has a great eye. For film nerds, the camera work and bizzare but intense score will earn points. However, the film I ultimately saw looked like the shadow of the better film that could have been, aspiring to be something I could love instead of just like. There needs to be more. Lily could be more sympathetic and complex, as could Amanda. The buildup to the decision to murder the stepfather comes far too soon, and needs to feel like the result of a natural progression of frustration rather than a flippant, off-the-cuff decision. This fleshing out of the story would have yielded a lot more gravity, and also would have made the lighter parts work better. There’s a lot of dark humor that could have been even funnier with more dramatic contrast. But what does work in the film’s favor makes me excited to see what Cory Finley has for us next, if he can take it the extra mile. | Nic Champion

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