One of the most exciting things about being a film critic is witnessing the arrival of a talented new artist. Rough debuts are a dime a dozen, but every so often there comes revelations -- features that showcase endlessly curious characters, inventive narratives, eye-catching aesthetics, and a general unique vision of the world. It's certainly rare, happening maybe once or twice a year at most, and now 2018 has offered up its first: his name is Cory Finley, and his startlingly great first movie is the wickedly clever, devilishly smart dark comedy Thoroughbreds.
Living in the same satirical realm as Michael Lehmann's Heathers and Mary Harron's American Psycho (minus the specific 1980s vibe), it's a film that thrashes at the bars of the gilded cage as it maintains a stoic facade -- telling a cutting story of youthful rage with a beautiful, clean and devilish impassiveness. And while it hesitates to cross all of the boundaries that it could within the story being told, showing some odd and unfortunate restraint at times, its ultimately so sharp it could draw blood. Built on quick wit, and fascinating characters brought to life by phenomenal performances, Thoroughbreds is a movie as enjoyable as it is exciting, and provides a flavor of its own at the winter box office.
The film introduces us to Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) years after the end of their friendship as youths -- the two private school-educated teenage girls both growing up in suburban Connecticut as only children of wealthy families. Amanda has recently become a social pariah, awaiting trial for an incident involving her beloved pet horse, and she is brought back together with Lily when her services are requested as a tutor. It's an icy reunion at the start, made awkward by Lily's deceptions and Amanda's revelation that she doesn't actually feel any emotions -- but they eventually find comfort in their ability to be perfectly real with one another.
This re-sparked friendship comes at a troubled time for Lily, however. Her mother (Kaili Vernoff) has married an emotionally abusive asshole named Mark (Paul Sparks), and between his noisy ergometer grinding away above the living room, and douche-tastic sense of décor compete with samurai swords in his office, he constantly pulverizes her last nerve. This is conflict that Amanda immediately picks up on, and begins to push -- eventually convincing her new best buddy that the only option they have is to have the guy murdered.
Watching Thoroughbreds, it's easy to think back to the emerging indie filmmakers of the late 1980s and early 1990s; writer/directors like the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, and Kevin Smith. A huge part of what made their work click was their clear ear for witty, heightened-but-grounded dialogue, and that's clearly one of Cory Finley's greatest strengths as well. Arming himself with a pair of special personalities as his protagonists, Finley crafts some effortlessly wicked back-and-forths -- starting with Lily's first real confrontation with Amanda, where she lets loose and tells her what she really feels about her. What's more, he proves repeatedly to be immensely adept at tricky expositional dialogue, which likely stems from his background in theater. He can get away with telling instead of showing because he proves that he can paint a shockingly vivid mental picture where necessary (the scene where Amanda plainly explains what happened to her horse with only flashes of flashbacks will successfully drain all the blood from your face).
Certainly helping Cory Finley pull it off is the fact that he's working with two of the best up-and-coming actresses currently working in the film world. Both Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke have personal histories with darker material -- with titles on their resumes including The Witch, Split, and multiple seasons of Bates Motel -- and it serves them well here. Amanda is surely the kind of part into which any actor would love the chance to sink their teeth, letting their inner sociopath claw their way out, and Cooke is absolutely stunning, succeeding in simultaneously being hilarious and endlessly unnerving. You'd think it would be a tough act to play against, but it only serves to highlight the wonderful arc through which Taylor-Joy navigates Lily, as she starts letting Amanda's fucked-up worldview influence her own.
Also deserving special mention is Anton Yelchin, as Thoroughbreds is the final performance of the young actor's career because of the tragic accident that took his life in the summer of 2016. The movie has him playing Tim, a drug dealer and wannabe shot-caller who becomes a hapless hitman, and it winds up being a entertainingly weird and subversive part -- catching a spark thanks to Yelchin's special youthful-but-nervous energy. It emphasizes how sad it is that we lost such a great talent at an early age, but it's comforting that his memory will remain with his fantastic work in a fantastic movie.
Proving himself as more than just a writer who also happens to direct, Cory Finley also makes a shocking debut with the execution of his vision. His partnership with production designer Jeremy Woodward and cinematographer Lyle Vincent lend a not-too-subtle aesthetic nod to the emptiness of opulence -- highlighting the vast spaces within Lily's giant Connecticut mansion -- while at the same time offering a rich, high-contrast color palette that brings both warmth and cold. Continuing the sensory experience, Finley does a wonderful job engaging with your ears as well, not only playing with sounds like the ever-grinding ergometer and deep gulps, but also a unique score from first time composer Erik Friedlander that's unlike anything you've ever heard backing a movie before.
Thoroughbreds is a film that successfully gets under your skin with its impish perspective on morality and acerbic satire, but it should be recognized that that it does come up a bit short in regards to its boundary pushing. Without demanding anything that steps close to the line of exploitative, there is a certain visceral bite that is ultimately missing, and it shorts the movie of a certain catharsis that feels needed after the constant build-up of darkness that the narrative provides. Frankly, it's the only evidence of Cory Finley being a first-time filmmaker, as you sense a certain timidity that might not be there if this were his third or fourth feature.
Looking at its history, Thoroughbreds took a minute to get to us, having first premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, but it proves worth the wait. It's a beautifully crafted, razor sharp bit of entertainment that has its faults, but still leaves a stinging in your gut. Between the impressive arrival of Cory Finley and the amazing work of Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, and Anton Yelchin, this one needs to be on your radar.