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Tense, Stylish 'Thoroughbreds' Earns Place In Winner's Circle

Lily (Anya Taylor-Jo, L) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke, R) hatch a plot to kill a troublesome step-father in <em>Thoroughbreds. </em>
Claire Folger
Focus Features
Lily (Anya Taylor-Jo, L) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke, R) hatch a plot to kill a troublesome step-father in Thoroughbreds.

You ever stop to think about how creepy rowing machines are?

There's one in Thoroughbreds, a blistering new comic thriller about teen girl sociopaths, and it gets a workout (so to speak). We never see the deltoid-booster onscreen — it's tucked out of sight in a stepdad's lair — but we hear its rhythmic hee-hawing, a giant sigh of unease that would give the mutant bear in Annihilation a run for its money. And the climax, which uses the sheer grandiosity of this sound extensively, is one of those audacious time-suspending moments when you fear you may never breathe again.

But Thoroughbreds is not about a rowing machine. It's about the people who can afford to own rowing machines, and sports cars, and tanning beds, and samurai swords, and keep every toy carefully sequestered in its own corner of the estate. In other words, the film is yet another takedown of the clueless bourgeoisie ... the suburban Connecticut contingent, in this case, to set it apart from last year's gloriously biting West Coast haymaker Beatriz at Dinner. And also unlike Beatriz, the so-called heroes this time are both products of this opulence, rather than outsiders to it. Does the environment birth the rotted psyches of its people, or can only sociopaths create a land like this in the first place? The two young women at the film's center lack any discernible note of empathy, and yet we still feel for them, or at least for the empty husks where their feelings would be.

It wasn't always this way. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) used to be best friends. Amanda was a champion horseback rider, until something seemed to drive her to kill her beloved steed; newly emerged from the black pit of psychotherapy, she now confesses that she's never had the ability to relate to people emotionally. "I have a perfectly healthy body," she says, wrapping her jacket around her to ward off human contact. "It just doesn't contain feelings." Nevertheless, the reunion is a chilly one: Lily, a fashion-forward boarding school beauty, has yet to fully get over her father's death, even though she's now living under the roof of her callous, verbally abusive health nut of a stepfather (Paul Sparks). The walls only begin to break down once Amanda, perhaps searching for a kindred spirit in emptiness, suggests murder, as though it were just another way to pass the time.

What follows is a bloody chess game played out on a perfectly manicured lawn, filled with high tension and a little overly precious rich-teen nihilism (cue the ironic Steve Jobs worship). But the missteps are saved by Cooke and Taylor-Joy, both rising stars among the smart set: the former for redefining a clichéd teen-with-cancer role for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the latter for facing down demons of the mind in The Witch and Split. They play the teen-girl friendship game as a series of manipulations and poker hands, hiding true thoughts until the moment when releasing them will cause the most pain. The key to Thoroughbreds is that Amanda and Lily are not shallow, and the film isn't making fun of them like its most obvious forebears, Heathers and Mean Girls. It won't even stoop to mocking the most obvious heel, a small-time drug slinger (Anton Yelchin, in his final role) who gets roped into the murder plot by virtue of his white-bread idiocy and macho eagerness. "What am I gonna tell my dad?" he moans to two teenagers half his size once he realizes he's in over his head — a pathetic moment that Yelchin brilliantly plays for humanity, as the only one in the room with real feelings, reminding us for the last time what a brilliant talent the actor was.

Thoroughbredswas written and directed by first-time filmmaker Cory Finley, and for other amateurs it's a masterclass in squeezing everything you can out of a small budget. Tension builds in dialogue, not set-pieces, and the movie is almost entirely set within one house — albeit a sprawling one, shot by cinematographer Lyle Vincent like a serial killer wreaking havoc on HGTV, and with a soundtrack (by Erik Friedlander) that's all creepy jangles. Finley, who is principally a playwright, originally wrote the film as a stage play. But the finished effort gives every contour of Lily's home a cinematic workout: Waitstaff scurry away just out of focus, empty doorways gawk at us and the camera plunges up flights of stairs into enveloping darkness.

In the midst of this most dangerous game are the brilliant creations of Amanda and Lily: deadly cases of affluenza mixed with the horrors of burgeoning womanhood. We'll be seeing their breed again, if they don't hunt each other to extinction first.

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