“Is it enough for a movie to be shallow because it’s ostensibly trying to make a point about its environment?”
by Ken Bakely
The main setting of Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds is a mansion in suburban Connecticut. It feels like a haunted house without any ghosts – imposing from the outside, quietly foreboding on the inside. Every corner seems a little too dark and a little too tight; you don’t quite know what you’re about to encounter around each turn. Finley, despite being a playwright by trade, uses this space with the clear-headed (yet subtle) command of someone beyond his first film. Lyle Vincent’s unsettling cinematography ensures that the light never hits anything in the way we want it to, either creating an ominous backlight or missing entirely. Because any conversation had between these walls already seems off-kilter, we’re willing to accept the movie’s deadpan delivery of its central conceit: Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), two childhood friends who awkwardly reconnect in their late high school years, begin hatching a plan to murder Mark (Paul Sparks), Lily’s overbearing, manipulative stepfather.
It’s Amanda’s idea. She explains that she’s unable to feel emotion, but has mastered the ability to feign feelings and figure out how people think. Lily is shocked by the suggestion, but her relationship with Mark has a penchant to get even rockier than it was a moment ago. Yet for the vast majority of Thoroughbreds’s runtime, whether they hatch and complete the plan is almost irrelevant. Finley is much more interested in tracking Lily and Amanda. They exist as interruptions of the precariously mounted gated communities in which they live. Taylor-Joy and Cooke are more than apt at developing their respective characters’ quirks and playing off each other, as Lily’s rising and falling befuddlement with Amanda’s impulsive nihilism is contrasted with Amanda’s distinct inability or indifference to process any of this.
Thoroughbreds loses itself in this, becoming a mood piece based around their careful friendship. Finley’s attempts to get things back into a plot are almost a source of disappointment, despite the fact that returning to the murder planning involves Tim (Anton Yelchin), a drug dealer who Lily and Amanda hire to carry out the killing. He’s stunned by their personal vacancies, but intrigued all the same. Yelchin’s very presence feels like a gift of the highest order, and exemplifies the qualities he could bring to even a relatively minimal supporting role. He imbues Tim with a complicated, wide-eyed humanity that Lily’s hollow home and Amanda’s lack of empathy couldn’t begin to match.
But such a foil underlines some of Finley’s scripting shortcomings. The setting is oppressive without being dramatically satisfying, with a series of third act payoffs coming in rapid succession, and without a reasonable tonal transition. Is it enough for a movie to be shallow because it’s ostensibly trying to make a point about its environment? Even there, Thoroughbreds rarely leaves the mansion’s immaculate grounds, and every venture outside of the property directly compared to its own insularity. Focusing on Lily and Amanda also means that all we have is their banter, combined with occasional diversions into the full extent of Mark’s genuine emotional abusiveness, and rounding it off with Tim’s forays into quasi-comedy. A lazy observation would be to chalk it up to Finley’s history as a playwright, when limited settings and drifting characters would be more in place, but it’s also obvious that he can use a range of aesthetic and chronological techniques that are specifically cinematic.
So the nature of this structural flaw is somewhere more nuanced. Thoroughbreds is otherwise quite seamless: accomplished and slick, fast and entertaining, dark and assured. It contains involving observations on the ideas of wealth, perception, and interaction. Every time the camera tracks into a new room, we’re struck by the gaudy furnishings that still leave it without a hint of personality. Finley adores the cheekiness of how that reflects his characters, and elevates it to new levels in a number of pivotal or climactic scenes, but he can’t quite stick the landing. Maybe the film hopes that the other qualities are enough to overlook the finer details. Maybe we weren’t supposed to look. This isn’t a dealbreaker, nor is it apparent until a significant amount of time has elapsed, but when the finale feels more like a hit-and-run after all that’s built up, it’s hard not to wonder where there could have been more.