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Written & Directed by Cory Finley
Amanda arrives at the home of her estranged friend Lily for a surprise invitation to “hang out.” Amanda quickly realizes this is a tutoring session set up by her mother, worried about Amanda’s borderline personality disorder getting in the way of meaningful friendships and her ability to do well in school. We learn that the two drifted apart after Lily’s father died and her mother remarried Mark, an incredibly wealthy man who demands the two women in his house comply with his rules. Amanda remarks that if Lily’s stepfather is causing her such grief, she should just kill him. At first, Lily shies away from this idea but the more she lingers on it, the more she wants to work to make it happen.
Thoroughbreds feels like Wes Anderson’s attempt at a classic Noir film. The manner in which characters speak and the bone-dry sense of humor seeped throughout recall early Anderson pictures like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. The East Coast-Connecticut setting and trials of a ridiculously wealthy family is a mix of Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums. These are also the characters that populate the worlds of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) and to some extent Hal Hartley (Henry Fool). But there’s also hints of P.T. Anderson in the mix, particularly the way crime is played for laughs yet balanced with pathos. The film’s original score recalls Jon Brion’s clunky percussion heavy work on Punch-Drunk Love. The movie is not afraid to show its inspirations.
There’s an energy cutting through Thoroughbreds, constant forward propulsion that these characters are moving towards an inevitable moment in their lives. The roles of Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) are played so fantastically, set up as opposing forces from the start. Cooke finds a place with Amanda’s lack of emotion and feeling that isn’t artificially, there are key moments where some sense breaks through, but always muted always a question about it being forced because she believes that is what people are supposed to do. Lily, on the other hand, is always sitting at the edge of an emotional explosion that never comes. You can see her hackles go up when Mark enters the room or starts working out on his absurdly loud rowing machine. She’s always coming right up to the edge, gritting her teeth and holding back.
Between these two is dropped Tim (the late Anton Yelchin in his final role), a townie whose most significant claim to fame is being a registered sex offender after he was caught have sex with a seventeen-year-old. Tim has aspirations to be the one in control, making grandiose claims about ascending the ladder of organized crime in the next five to ten years. Amanda reminds him he works in the kitchen of a retirement home to which he tries to downplay this as only a part-time job. When questioned about owning a gun he gets irritated only to pull said gun when he’s in Lily’s house. The girls come up with a plan to get Tim’s hands dirty as the killer of Mark but as these sorts of movies go that plan will not go as we think.
There’s an incredibly enlightening moment in the third act where we finally get to hear Mark speak for more than a sentence or two. He confronts Lily about her worldview, and he makes a lot of sense. Mark never strikes his wife or step-daughter, and there’s never a sense that he has sexually assaulted either. Mark is most certainly a massive dick as put on display when he goes off verbally on his wife. His rules are always enforced in a comically passive-aggressive manner. So, when he lays out to Lily how he sees her point of view in relationships with other, the audience can’t help but be surprised that they find themselves nodding their head in agreement. Hell, even Amanda tells Lily in the next scene that Mark isn’t wrong about what he said.
The film brilliantly works on a surface level of a crime thriller but also a psychological drama, centered around the unfeeling Amanda and whether she will learn to experience the world differently or if she is perfectly happy with how she is. The film does deliver a sort of answer about both. However, the latter issue of Amanda’s journey in life is the one that will linger with you the longest.