Originally from Michigan but educated in the south by the Savannah College of Art and Design, Jacob Ethington is a playwright and screenwriter who's always willing to relocate if necessary. Excerpts of his work are available to read on this site along with blog posts about media that he loves.

"Thoroughbreds" (2018) Review

"Thoroughbreds" (2018) Review

Cinema doesn't understand the sociopath.

Cinema loves psychopaths, people without feeling who mercilessly kill and maim, but the full out sociopath is a far scarier thing. The sociopath learns to imitate emotions to appear normal to their peers and truly have trouble conceptualizing their own rage. The full out sociopath is actually pretty rare in reality, even the most famous sociopaths managed to have rage just under the skin (serial killers like Edmund Kemper, Dennis Rader, and so on). In cinematic terms, it's hard to center a story around a true sociopath because they aren't maniacally scheming, but quietly contemplating.

The solution to telling a story about a sociopath is pairing them up with someone who needs them. For the wrong reasons.

Which naturally brings us to Thoroughbreds, a film that I'm stunned to learn is the work of Corey Finley, a director and writer making his debut. Congratulations are in order for him, his cinematographer, his composer, and his cast. They've made something really special, an unnerving descent into a slow burn scenario that could never end in a bloodless fashion.

(To be clear though, there's not that much gore in Thoroughbreds, but it's there.)

The story concerns Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), estranged childhood friends brought back together in their late teenage years. Amanda is being tutored by Lily, an uncomfortable arrangement made even more uncomfortable by Amanda's constant questions of Lily. Amanda is our sociopath, who sees life as a series of tasks to complete. There's no real emotion behind anything she does, but she's become alarmingly good at appearing like anyone else (which is especially demonstrated when she tries to teach Lily how to cry on command).

Lily can't help but be initially terrified of Amanda for two primary reasons: Amanda's perfect imitation skills allow her to see right through Lily's carefully manufactured facade and that Amanda recently stabbed her own horse to death. Most of all though, Amanda picks up on Lily's hatred of Mark (Paul Sparks), Lily's stepfather. One thing leads to another and Amanda can't help but ask:

Why don't you just kill him?

It wouldn't be much of a movie if Lily didn't eventually begin to take the question seriously and Thoroughbreds slowly unfolds as mostly a character study that happens to have a murder plan in it. The reason I phrase it that way is that Corey Finley has wisely allowed his two lead actresses to really work off of each other here. Anya Taylor-Joy can play this kind of role in her sleep (she's earned a lot of credibility in my mind for The Witch and Split alone), but she doesn't sleepwalk through this film as Lily.

But this really is Olivia Cooke's film. I don't know if people really understand how difficult it is for an actor to strip themselves back so far emotionally while maintaining a screen presence, but Olivia Cooke nails it here. The rapport between Amanda and Lily is almost comedic because of the lack of reaction from Amanda. Thoroughbreds is nerve-wracking at times, but it has a layer of dark humor under all of it, and that's mostly from Olivia Cooke.

The supporting cast is pretty good, but the standout in the supporting cast is Anton Yelchin as Tim, a low-level drug dealer with delusions of grandeur who gets pulled into Amanda and Lily's world. This is Anton Yelchin's final film (words which pain me to write), and it's a stark reminder of a talent we lost far too early. He's definitely not a leading actor here, but he performs right up to the standards that Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke establish early on.

The fact that Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke work so well off of each other is why most of the film succeeds as well as it does without the supporting cast though, even when some of the movie's logic does become a little hazy towards the end. I personally love the ending here because of how well it works for the characters, but I'll just say that fans of forensics will find plot points to nitpick.

And to me, that's what it is, a nitpick. Again, it works so well to concluding the arcs of the two lead characters that I'm more than willing to let it slide. A lot of the chemistry between these two comes from the shot design, which will linger on the actresses to let them build reactions to each other.

I'll use that to segue into saying that the cinematography on the whole is really fantastic. It's nice to see a filmmaker use a steadicam long-take for motivated camera moves instead of a super elaborate long take for the sake of itself. Whole scenes will play out on a steadicam rig and the end results almost always look great (minus a few moments where you can see the camera rig reflecting, but again, that's a nitpick and the only reason I noticed was because of how gracefully choreographed everything else about the shot was). Beyond those steadicam shots are some gorgeous still compositions that build tension in all the right ways.

Adding to that tension is a minimalist music score, mostly built out of percussion that almost sounds like it was taken out of an old school samurai movie. It's stripped back and used at all the right moments.

I find myself writing "all the right ____" a lot in this review, but that's how Thoroughbreds is made. It feels like every right decision that could be made creatively, artistically, and technically got made while filming Thoroughbreds, and the only thing that might be holding it back for me is its procedural nature. If there is a big idea that runs through the entire film, I'm not sure what it is. It might be something about the bizarre nature of self-serving friendships, a satire on how money seems to drain away the humanity of individuals through mere exposure, but that's me throwing darts at a board metaphorically speaking.

The film really sets out to tell the story of what happens when a sociopath meets the right/wrong person at the right/wrong time, and it tells that story with workman-like precision from all possible parties. If that was the goal, then Thoroughbreds knocked it out of the park. It could have been a lesser movie with that premise and still be reasonably entertaining, but Thoroughbreds is easily above and beyond reasonably entertaining.

I wouldn't exactly say that Thoroughbreds is the heartwarming tale of a sociopath and the friend she makes along the way, but you should see it anyway. It leans more towards being a crime thriller with a malicious sense of humor, and if that sounds like its your jam, drop what you're doing and see Thoroughbreds before its yanked out of theaters.

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