‘Thoroughbreds’ Review: Finding Heart With the Heartless

Sociopaths just want to have fun. But they can’t… they’re sociopaths.

Morality is a tricky subject. Our innate human nature suggests that our moral base should be shared across the species like a universal truth, but reality has long proven otherwise. We make our own morality, each of us, informed by common sense, the parenting we received (or didn’t receive), or even old books written by men who couldn’t have possibly imagined the world as we know it now.

Amanda (Olivia Cooke) knows this all too well as she’s been an outside observer her entire life. Her psychiatrist seems to be blindly picking diagnoses for her out of the DSM-5, but Amanda knows the bottom line to all of them is her lack of feelings – she knows no joy, anger, jealousy, and instead has simply refined her skills as a mimic of human emotion. It’s been a bumpy ride that saw her removed from school and charged with a crime involving a horse, but she feels no shame in it all. Because again, she feels nothing.

She shares all of this with an old friend from school, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), when the two reunite after years apart for a study session arranged by Amanda’s desperate mom. The rekindling of their friendship struggles at first, but they soon gel after Amanda suggests Lily kill off her troublesome stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). Motives and intentions intertwine as the pair move toward a seemingly unavoidable conclusion.

Writer/director Cory Finley’s debut, Thoroughbreds, is a wickedly sharp, funny, and suspenseful look at the thin divide between our emotions and our actions, and the film finds fault and value in both halves as brought to beautifully engaging life by two incredibly talented young actors. It’s easy to see inspirations as varied as Heavenly Creatures and Heathers, but Finley makes his film unique in approach and effect.

Setting the pair’s dark conversations against a backdrop of privilege affords them both freedom and a lack of necessary concern – everything is accessible, and they’ve never had to worry about other people. Amanda’s upfront about her inability to care, while Lily’s actions are fueled as much by emotion as anything else – so which one is more in tune with right and wrong? The answer isn’t always clear, and the deeper they descend into the subject murkier that distinction becomes. Can morality and empathy be ignored? Can they be learned?

Cooke, who made waves at Sundance a couple years ago as the the title girl in the excellent Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl repeats that feat here with another mesmerizing performance, but she does so with a far less empathetic character. Amanda has committed a reportedly violent and grotesque act, and by her own admission she doesn’t give a damn about anyone else, but Cooke finds a beating heart in this heartless girl. She tells Lily that people like her aren’t automatically bad, but she says, “We have to work a lot harder at being good.” Cooke’s deadpan and indifferent delivery seems at odds with her friendly face and large eyes, but as Amanda repeatedly tells us, she’s become an expert at pretending. We never doubt the coldness within, but her quieter moments – the pauses, the looks in mirrors – suggest a desire beyond what she’ll admit.

Taylor-Joy’s Lily is an equally compelling combination of surface behaviors and internal motivations, and her messy outbursts play in direct contrast to Amanda’s flat expression. The film also benefits from a pair of supporting performances by Sparks and the late Anton Yelchin. Sparks is just perfect prickishness in human form, while Yelchin finds humanity in a pathetic loser who would have risked being unmemorable in lesser hands.

The entire cast is strong, but it’s the two young women who power the film (and Finley’s script) into our minds, hearts, and funny bones. There’s laughter to be found in the darkness here, but it frequently come paired with serious questions on the nature of what it means to be a moral human being. Most of the film takes place in Lily’s home which cinematographer Lyle Vincent captures with an eye for both its false warmth and real beauty while composer Erik Friedlander sets a playful tone for the developing darkness.

At only ninety minutes Thoroughbreds gallops by far too fast – I could easily have spent another hour with Amanda and Lily exploring each other’s psyche as they slowly reveal new layers of their own – but that doesn’t mean the film shortchanges viewers. To the contrary, it finds a natural and emotionally satisfying conclusion that suggests some answers to the questions asked while leaving others open to debate – where you land on those questions may determine whether you’re a good or bad person. Or not.

[Editor’s note: This review of Thoroughbreds originally ran during Sundance 2017 where it premiered under the slightly shorter title, Thoroughbred.]

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