I love a good one-word title. And then the conceit of Chekhov's Gun: If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Plenty of educated people might find it hacky for me to bring this up at the very beginning of a review, but I guarantee you plenty of my readers have never heard of Chekhov's Gun, so work with me here.
Thoroughbreds gets right to this concept, and as a result I thought of it in a way I'm not sure I ever have while watching another film. The opening shot is of a horse -- this movie is not about horses, but they feature prominently in the story -- with a teenage girl we later learn to be Amanda (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's Olivia Cooke) staring it down. This goes on several seconds too long for it to be comfortable, until she reaches out to touch it. Fade to black, and there is a brief shot of a knife being set down. That would be, of course, Chekhov's Knife.
Rather than acts, Thoroughbreds is presented in "chapters," and indeed we learn what the deal was with that knife soon enough. It's pretty gruesome, and never shown onscreen -- Amanda and her friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, all steely looks and piercing eyes) simply talk about it. There's a sort of foreshadowing to this technique by debut feature writer-director Cory Finley, which may or may not have been a means of saving on production budget, but it's memorably effective either way. By the end, the climactic incident is just as gruesome and also occurs offscreen, the camera lingering an unnaturally long time on Amanda passed out on a living room couch.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that Thoroughbreds is a unique vision with DNA derived of that in movies like American Pyscho -- it's also been compared to Heathers, although that strikes me as a stretch. The latter is much more about how women back stab each other, in that case literally and fatally; Amanda and Lily never betray each other. It's a little more like they're Patrick Bateman's psychotic granddaughters.
The script here really should be commended. This movie is mostly tense and measured dialogue between two characters, always falling just short of feeling natural but featuring a delivery that gives it a mesmerizing quality, perfect for the darkly comic tone it's going for. Amanda, at first coming for tutoring lessons for which her mother is paying Lily, admits early on that she feels no emotions: "I'm a skilled imitator," she stresses, more than once. There is a false sense at first that she is the dangerous one and Lily is the one who will be drawn into her vortex of blithe immorality. On the contrary, Amanda's skills come from keen observation, and it's an astute one when she says to Lily, "Empathy isn't exactly your strong suit."
These young women come from affluent families, Lily's particularly so, and she has deep hatred for her stepfather (Paul Sparks, perfectly cast). This guy never really treats Lily that badly, and when Amanda overhears some of his criticisms she even notes that he's not far off base. Lily being such a spoiled rich girl is perhaps part of the point; nevertheless, Amanda, ever the rational one, poses the question: if they could get away with killing him, why not? When she's got a point she's got a point!
They blackmail a local loser drug dealer into doing the job for them, so they could both be out of town and thereby have "airtight alibis." This guy comes in the form of the late Anton Yelchin, in one of the very last performances before his death. I didn't even realize it was him until the end credits began with a memorial dedication to him. Is it a great and powerful final performance? I'd love to say it is. It's fine.
It's Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, really, who make this movie. In ways specific to each of them, they both become increasingly unsettling as the story unfolds. It's kind of The Bad Seeds for the 21st Cenutry, but with girls a few years older, and a targeted adult who has no idea what kind of danger he's in. Stepdad is just a moderate douche, thoroughly clueless.
It's us, as the audience, who either fear or know what's coming, and that's what makes Thoroughbreds work like a truly well-oiled machine -- almost too oiled, at times, with its obvious precision. Every gesture is a clearly made decision, as though every frame were a meticulous diorama. The perfectly framed cinematography is at times hypnotic, especially when paired with Erik Friedlander's strange but effectively percussive score.
There's something about Thoroughbreds that makes it feel within a stone's throw of perfection -- like something very subtle and unidentifiable is missing, but in the end that doesn't matter nearly as much as how well its over-polish actually makes it work. It features a glossy veneer that belies its gritty insides. None of these characters are particularly relatable, but they command undivided attention anyway. Cory Finley has taken some very wrong things and done something very right with them.