The Movie Waffler Now on Netflix - THOROUGHBREDS | The Movie Waffler

Now on Netflix - THOROUGHBREDS

thoroughbreds review
A pair of teens concoct a plan to murder one of their stepfathers.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Cory Finley

Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Kaili Vernoff, Paul Sparks

thoroughbreds film poster

Though she's found success on TV's acclaimed Bates Motel, actress Olivia Cooke has chalked up a series of big screen duds. In movies like The Quiet Ones, Ouija, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Limehouse Golem and this month's Ready Player One, Cooke has provided the one ray of light, portraying a varied group of characters. With Thoroughbreds, the directorial debut of playwright Cory Finley, Cooke is once again the highlight, but this time she's found material to match her talents.

Cooke plays Amanda, a high schooler who, thanks to an undiagnosed disorder, is unable to feel any emotion, neither negative nor positive. When we meet her first she's putting her pet horse to sleep, though not with a bullet, Marnie style, but with a knife (don't worry animal lovers, this occurs offscreen). Soon after this incident, Amanda arrives at the home of her old school friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has agreed to tutor her, though only after having been paid $200 by Amanda's mother. When Amanda reveals that she hacked her mother's email account and is aware of the transaction, there's an initial awkwardness between the girls, but they put it behind them and rekindle their friendship, Lily finding a strange comfort in Amanda's unfazed directness.

thoroughbreds review

When Lily's stepfather, Mark (Barry Pepper lookalike Paul Sparks), turns up, Amanda immediately senses that Lily despises him, and throws out the suggestion that Lily murder him. Lily shrugs off the suggestion, but after an encounter with local hustler Tim (the late Anton Yelchin in his final screen role), the two girls concoct a plan to blackmail him into murdering Mark on their behalf.

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The relative lack of locations may betray Thoroughbreds' origins as a previously unproduced stage play, but within its opening minutes we're assured that we're in the hands of a new writer/director who directs as well as he writes. Finley employs an extended tracking shot that follows Amanda through Lily's plush and extensive family home, not as a pointless stylistic trick, but as a means of visually conveying crucial nuggets of information that reveal the dynamic ahead - faceless Mexican servants walk past in the background, an envelope marked 'Lily' is filled with $20 dollar notes and left at the bottom of the stairs, and Mark's office is filled with culturally appropriated Eastern ephemera, along with a photo of him standing over the carcass of a lion.

thoroughbreds review

Throughout his debut, Finley continues to display an innate knowledge of how to create visually interesting tableaux, even from what amounts to two handed dialogue scenes. Conversations often play out in long takes, Finley positioning his actors in ways that reveal much about their level of comfort together. Early on we see the image that's been used on the film's poster of Amanda and Lilly at opposite ends of a couch, which later lends one of the film's final shots all the more impact.

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Close-ups are rare, but when they do occur, they're always meaningful, usually exploiting the expressive faces of the film's young duo, making us ponder what's running through their characters' manipulative heads. A scene in which Amanda describes the act of killing her horse plays out as she hauls giant stone pieces around a chess board in Lily's back garden, and while we only see Amanda in long shot in the background, Lily's positioning in the foreground tells us which of the two girls is more moved by the monologue. Sound plays an integral role too, with a moment of violence communicated off screen with the sudden disruption of a previously established piece of background noise.

thoroughbreds review

Though a technically adept piece of filmmaking, Finley's film is essentially a character piece, one more concerned with the relationship between its central protagonists than in weaving a plot full of twists and turns. Cooke and Taylor-Joy spar like a more composed John Dahl and Farley Granger in Hitchcock's Rope, and though both are in their twenties, we never feel like we aren't really watching 16-year-olds. Even if Finley wasn't so committed to making his film aesthetically pleasing, simply watching both actresses carefully chew their roles would make Thoroughbreds a compelling experience.

Amanda and Lily are often seen watching watching classic movies, providing a sophisticated take on Beavis and Butthead style snarky commentary, and Thoroughbreds itself seems more influenced by the Hollywood of old than by recent indie cinema. It's a movie that follows a tried and trusted formula - take two talented actresses, provide them with a worthwhile script, and find interesting but meaningful ways to shoot their interactions. It sounds simple, and Finley, Cooke and Taylor-Joy certainly make it look simple, but it takes real talent to make a movie that feels as effortlessly composed as Thoroughbreds.

Thoroughbreds is on Netflix UK now.

2018 movie reviews